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Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel: Buzz

John Kelman By

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On the fourth album with his group Medicine Wheel bassist Ben Allison continues to push the boundaries of structured music with a programme of six originals and one Beatles cover. With a straightforward sound that belies a richer complexity, Allison continues to present invention masked in simplicity, combining intelligence with emotional depth.

Buzz opens with Allison’s “Respiration,” a 9/4 piece that is insistent, with simple interweaving bass, piano and electric piano parts laying the groundwork for a snake-like horn theme that manages to have the same kind of pop-like sensibility of groups like E.S.T.; once the theme is stated the piece opens up into a light funk section where pianist Frank Kimbrough’s solo combines the gospel groove of Keith Jarrett with the eccentricity of Paul Bley.

“Buzz,” another Allison original previously recorded on the first Medicine Wheel album in ’98, also revolves around a simple premise, the sound of New York City. Allison and, in particular, drummer Michael Sarin lend an intensity to the rhythm section that captures perfectly the fast pace of the Big Apple.

“Green Al” was originally conceived as a song and, again, a certain directness makes it an accessible while, at the same time, imaginative vehicle for saxophonist Michael Blake’s solo, which alternates between soulful melodies and clever post bop passages.

Blake’s “Mauritania” enters Afro Cuban territory; Allison takes a solo that is filled with surprise only to be eclipsed by trombonist Clark Gayton, who develops rhythmic motifs interspersed with moans and rasps that Allison has likened to “an old man crying into his beer.”

Andrew Hill’s “Erato” is arguably the most harmonically rich piece, and the freest with time. While there is a clear pulse throughout, Sarin’s light polyrhythms give it a certain elasticity that is completely in keeping with Hill’s tendency to play loose with time.

Track-by-track discussions aside, what makes this such an enjoyable disk is the way that Allison and the ensemble manage to take such simple, song-like premises and breathe depth into them. Even their cover of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” a loose but fairly faithful reading with concise and clear solos, demonstrates the riches to be found beneath the surface. Rubato leads into a straightforward rhythmic reading for the last chorus, ending the album on an elegant note.

With Buzz , Ben Allison continues to mask adventure in a straightforward veneer; with music that reveals its layers gradually and with subtlety, Allison has created a vehicle that provides both challenge and respite, head and heart.

Visit Ben Allison and Palmetto Records on the web.


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