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Jazz Composers Collective Concert Series: Mark Helias's Open Loose and Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel

David Adler By

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New School Jazz Performance Space
New York City
September 2000

There are few jazz ensembles more aptly named than Mark Helias’s Open Loose. The master bassist kicked off a new Jazz Composers Collective concert series with the help of Tony Malaby on tenor sax and Tom Rainey on drums. Dissolving all traditional jazz-trio boundaries, each player helped bring about a combustible stew of sound in which any instrument could take the lead, or recede into the background, at any time.
Rainey’s gangly, physical attack was as riveting as ever. Often staring straight ahead as if to visualize the infinite possibilities arrayed before him, the drummer grabbed alternately for the sticks, brushes, and other implements that best expressed the moment. Malaby played complex, ardent solos and effortlessly launched into unpredictable unison passages on cue. Helias piloted the group with an authority, wisdom, and selflessness that brought Dave Holland to mind. His pizzicato and arco playing were equally strong, and his rigorous compositions ("Startle," "Dominoes," "Mapa," "Gentle Ben," and "Pick and Roll") walked a tightrope between stirring cacophony and wily precision.
Following intermission, Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel took the stage to play music from their forthcoming album, Riding the Nuclear Tiger (Palmetto, January 2001). The deservedly huge buzz from last year’s Third Eye didn’t at all paralyze Allison with follow-up anxiety; rather, it inspired him to search for new ideas and extend the expressive capacities of his band.
As he has done in the past, Allison utilized his bass in unconventional ways — altering his tuning to maximize the groove potential of "Tectonics," using an overhand picking technique to simulate a harp on "Jazz Scene Voyeur," and yanking the top string just off the fingerboard to create a percussive buzz on "Swiss Cheese D," the burning finale. On "Weazy," Michael Blake performed his hallmark tenor/soprano trick, playing both horns simultaneously. But much to everyone’s surprise, the more buttoned-down Ted Nash joined in toward the end, mouthing both his alto and tenor saxophones. The double horns finished the piece unaccompanied — cracking the audience up — and then Allison asked Nash a classic rhetorical question: "Now aren’t you glad I made you?"

Drummer Michael Sarin, Medicine Wheel’s newest member, has ably worked himself into the fabric of the group over the past year. Pianist Frank Kimbrough continued to uplift Allison’s work with his intelligent harmonic choices and to-the-point solos, particularly on the Mingus-inspired "Love Chant Remix." Ron Horton tore into "Tectonics" with a playful trumpet solo and wove beautiful flugelhorn lines together with Nash’s tenor on the ballad "Charlie Brown’s Psychedelic Christmas." The latter also showcased cellist Tomas Ulrich, who played the melody and contributed a strong solo.

At this point in his career, Allison is beginning to develop an instantly recognizable compositional language, and this new batch of tunes bears it out incredibly well. But Medicine Wheel is unique in another important respect: The group invariably conveys a sense of fun onstage. Fun, it must be added, does not mean frivolity or a denial of music’s seriousness. It denotes a level of engagement with the audience that is absolutely one-of-a-kind. The personal investments and relationships within the band come through in every moment of every tune.

[The next Jazz Composers Collective concert is scheduled for Thursday, November 30 at 8pm, New School Jazz Performance Space, NYC. It will feature Michael Blake’s Free Association and Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra.]


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