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Ben Allison: Cowboy Justice

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Cowboy Justice sticks to the basics. Each tune opens with a repeated riff that is then accented by the other instruments, heavy on layered harmonies. Ben Allison is one of the founding members of the non-profit Jazz Composers Collective, a hub for young, forward-thinking talent, and Cowboy Justice has the feel of a workshop the Collective might put on, a testing ground for basic melodic ideas yet to be fully fleshed out.

The first tune, "Tricky Dick," begins with a strummed electric guitar riff, which Ron Horton's trumpet then circles around with brief, round-toned stabs, until he introduces the rhythm section with a lilting melodic phrase. Allison and drummer Jeff Ballard then jump in, as the bass harmonizes with the guitar, the drums adding scattered accents. It all builds organically from Steve Cardenas' guitar riff, which remains the backbone throughout. After the bridge, Horton stretches out a bit, elaborating the melody with a swagger, while Cardenas offers a tightly clustered solo of his own, though it lacks Horton's propulsive energy. Repeating the opening trumpet-guitar figure, it winds to a close for a structurally satisfying conclusion.

"Talking Heads" opts for a bass ostinato as the working template. Repeated acoustic guitar chords ramp up the tempo as Horton essays a laid-back melody above it all. It fails to layer its harmonies or add dissonance to upset its complacency. "Hey Man" is more of the same—it begins with another repeated bass figure, this time with Horton's trumpet offering laid-back color. The centerpiece is a drums-bass conversation that never gets past introductions.

"Emergency" tweaks the formula by inserting reverb-soaked electric guitar riffs in the opening bass figure, eventually slowing to a crunching Black Sabbath dirge that Cardenas should've turned the amp up on. Horton again steals the thunder, angrily stuttering through a fiery solo as the group hiccups to a close.

"Weazy" is another fine piece, originally recorded for Riding the Nuclear Tiger (Palmetto, 2001), this time given a western swing treatment to great effect. It's Cardenas' show. He loosely interprets the theme with dexterous charm as Allison thunders behind him with a swinging rhythm, egging the guitarist on. Perhaps its success is due to Allison's comfort with the tune, allowing him to stretch out more and tinker with its basic structure. This idea is borne out with the dynamic closer, "Blabbermouth," first featured on Medicine Wheel (Palmetto, 1998), where the musicians seem engaged in a discussion: a funky bass run is reflected off a plaintive trumpet melody, whereupon Cardenas introduces a swirling riff that drives the whole quartet into brief upheaval.

Track Listing: Tricky Dick; Talking Heads; Hey Man; Emergency; Midnight Cowboy; Tricky Rides Again; Weazy; Ruby's Roundabout; Blabbermouth.

Personnel: Ben Allison: bass, acoustic guitar; Ron Horton: trumpet, flugelhorn; Steve Cardenas: electric and acoustic guitar; Jeff Ballard: drums.

Title: Cowboy Justice | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Palmetto Records

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