Ben Allison: Bringing Listeners to the Music

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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I still think of myself as a jazz musician and I don't believe anyone can claim ownership of the word. Jazz music is what we, the musicians, make it.
Ben Allison is a jazz musician you should keep an eye on. Influenced by Charlie Haden, but with a voice all his own, this year seems to be quite a ride for his career. DownBeat magazine selected him as one of the "25 rising jazz stars for the future," and he also won the prestigious "Bird Award" at the 2005 North Sea Jazz Festival, an honor previously awarded to important artists including Misha Mengelberg, Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins. All About Jazz caught up with Allison to speak with him about his career and musical choices.

All About Jazz: How and when did you start playing bass? Was it your first instrument?

Ben Allison: My first instruments were guitar and drums. At one point I felt that I should make a choice and concentrate on one or the other. Around the same time I tried the bass and immediately fell in love with it. The bass felt like a perfect combination of the guitar and the drums.

AAJ: Which bass players have influenced you most?

BA: I tend to be influenced by bassists who are also composers and band leaders. I think bass players lead bands in a particular and unique way. And writing from the perspective of the bass definitely gives the music a different character. Bass players have a special relationship with drummers. Together they can really direct the course of the music.

AAJ: Who is for you the bassist?

BA: I can't think of one person who represents everything for me. I've learned something from everyone I've ever heard (even if it's something that I don't want to do). I've also been influenced by many non-musicians: graphic artists, philosophers, lawyers, friends, chefs, children, and the occasional teacher.

AAJ: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?

BA: Yes, I do. Jazz is a big word these days. The music has expanded and developed exponentially over the years. Jazz is, by its very nature, a musical style born of the fusion of different traditions. Jazz musicians have incorporated so many sounds and styles into contemporary jazz that some people feel that jazz itself has become too diluted and the word has lost its meaning. I don't think this is true. I still think of myself as a jazz musician and I don't believe anyone can claim ownership of the word. Jazz music is what we, the musicians, make it. And it's a vital part of the tradition of jazz that the music move forward and develop. Jazz musicians love to experiment and try new things. That's what keeps the music alive and changing.

AAJ: What was it like playing with guys that come from the jazz tradition and belong to another generation, like Clark Terry and Lee Konitz?

BA: Both Clark and Lee play music that transcends time. They have styles that are products of the eras they grew up in. But their musicality and artistry works as well today as it did when they were young.

AAJ: What about David Liebman? He is known to be a tough guy.

BA: Dave is also a great supporter of musicians who take risks and have worked to develop their own sound and style. He's opinionated. But most original thinkers are.

AAJ: DownBeat has recently referred to you as one of the "25 rising jazz stars for the future." Additionally you have just received the prestigious "Bird Award" at this year's North Sea Jazz Festival, ranking with musicians like Misha Mengelberg, Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins. Do you feel any extra weight on your shoulders?

BA: The only real pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself. I greatly appreciate publications such as DownBeat and organizations such as the North Sea Jazz Festival praising my work. It's nice to feel that you're being recognized for what you do. But I'm my own worst critic.

AAJ: You are quoted as being an "advocate for artist empowerment." What, for you, is the meaning of that?

BA: I founded the Jazz Composers Collective—a non-profit organization dedicated to presenting new music and building audiences for jazz—with the intention of drawing attention to the music of creative New York composers as well as bringing more listeners to the music. I wanted a way to bridge what I perceived to be a gap between the musicians and the casual music listener. I don't think that jazz is something that should be hard to understand or something that the listener has to work hard to like. Jazz is a subtle music and there is a lot to enjoy. And at times and with certain musicians it can be quite complex but I think that the casual listener's aversion to checking it out usually has more to do with how and where it's presented.

AAJ: You were very young when you founded the Jazz Composers Collective and now there is something like euphoria around you, even amongst young people. How do you explain this?

BA: I'm not sure about euphoria. But I do believe that if you exude enthusiasm for what you do and try to work with musicians who feel the same people will respond with a similar energy. During the years when the Collective was most active with our concert series, newsletter, special projects, festival and educational events we were pouring a lot of creative energy into the New York music community. And I was not surprised when people, many of whom we did not know or had never met, came forward and ask how they could help or volunteer their time. People like to be involved in positive, creative work.

AAJ: You are currently working with five different groups—Peace Pipe, New Quartet, Medicine Wheel, the Kush Trio, and the Herbie Nichols Project. In a way it's like a writer who is writing various books simultaneously. What urges you to express yourself in different contexts?

BA: Each of those five projects is an extension of the other. There are certain musical things that you can only do in a trio context, others that only work with a larger instrumentation. The addition of the kora in Peace Pipe was a way for me to try something totally new and challenge myself as a composer and band leader. The Herbie Nichols Project (which I co-lead with pianist Frank Kimbrough) is a very different project for me in that it is the only one that I lead that does not play my music. It's an interesting experience to work with someone else's music like it was your own, especially music as original and unique as Herbie Nichols's.

AAJ: Considering all these musical projects, how would you describe your music to an alien that had just landed on this planet and knew nothing about jazz or improvised music?

BA: I would not attempt to describe it. I would only ask that they listen to it. If I could put my thoughts and beliefs into words then I would not have to be a musician.

AAJ: Your records are doing pretty well and reaching different audiences in different countries. What new projects do you have in mind?

BA: I am currently working on my new quartet of bass, trumpet, guitar and drums. I also just recently had a great experience in Brazil where a local 80-piece symphony orchestra arranged my music for a performance in Sao Paulo. I am hoping to write some new music for the orchestra and perform it next year.

AAJ: How do you explain the success of your records on the radio? Isn't it hard to have jazz records being played on this media?

BA: Part of the success comes from the hard work at Palmetto Records (the label that I'm on) and Terry Coen who does such a great job of letting folks know about my music. I also think that my style of jazz incorporates modern sounds that the younger generation can get with while hopefully offering older audiences a certain kind of sophistication that they appreciate.

AAJ: What is this New Quartet project of yours?

BA: This will be the debut performance of my new quartet in Portugal. The band features Ron Horton [trumpet], Steve Cardenas [guitar], and Michael Sarin [drums]. I am really looking forward to it.

AAJ: You just came back from Brazil which is a Portuguese speaking country. Can you specify what you were doing there?

BA: In addition to the symphonic performance I mentioned above, we also did our second annual Jazz Composers Collective Festival Brazil which featured many of the ongoing projects led by members of the Collective. We had a ball.

AAJ: A guy comes to you and says—"Hey Mr. Allison I know you are a hell of a bass/jazz player! Now, I know nothing about jazz so can you tell me a CD that can turn me to this music—What would your advice be?

BA: Of course, I'd recommend one of my own!

Selected Discography

Michael Blake Trio, Right Before Your Very Ears (Clean Feed, 2005)
Ben Allison/Medicine Wheel, Buzz (Palmetto, 2004)
Frank Kimbrough, Lulluabluebye (Palmetto, 2004)
Ted Nash, Still Evolved (Palmetto, 2003)
Ben Allison, Peace Pipe (Palmetto, 2002)
Tom Christensen, Paths (Playscape, 2002)
Ben Allison/Medicine Wheel, Riding the Nuclear Tiger (Palmetto, 2001)
The Herbie Nichols Project, Strange City (Palmetto, 2001)
Ben Allison/Medicine Wheel, Third Eye (Palmetto, 1999)
Ted Nash Double Quartet, Rhyme & Reason (Arabesque, 1999)
The Herbie Nichols Project, Dr. Cyclop's Dream (Soul Note, 1999)
Ben Allison/Medicine Wheel, Medicine Wheel (Palmetto, 1998)
Frank Kimbrough, Chant (Igmod, 1998)
Ben Allison, Seven Arrows (Koch, 1995)
The Herbie Nichols Project, Love is Proximity (Soul Note, 1995)
Lee Konitz, Rhapsody II (Evidence, 1993)
Lee Konitz, Rhapsody (Evidence, 1993)
Ted Nash, Out of This World (Mapleshade, 1991)

Related Article
Ben Allison: Different Generations, Same Realizations (2003)
Ugly Beauty: The Music and Mind of Ben Allison (2001)
An AAJ Interview with Ben Allison (2001)

Photo Credit
Jimmy Katz


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