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Ben Allison: Medicine Wheel

Glenn Astarita By

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Ben Allison asserts: "The Medicine Wheel is a mirror in which the universe is reflected. Any idea, person or object can be such a mirror". Derived from North American Indian beliefs Allison's somewhat mystical approach adheres to the overall attitude behind his music and the band's execution. The Septet aptly called "Medicine Wheel" is a conglomerate of "new jazz" musicians who yearn for new sounds and ideas while extending the capabilities of their respective musical instruments.

Medicine Wheel is: Ben Allison (bass, leader, composer); Michael Blake (saxophones); Ted Nash (saxophones, flute); Tomas Ulrich (cello); Jeff Ballard (drums); Frank Kimbrough (piano, prepared piano) and Ron Horton (trumpet). Ben Allison has been living the dream of most modern day jazz musicians: Leader of the Jazz Composer's Collective, Educator, Institutional Faculty Member, Band Leader et al. In the liner notes, the band "Medicine Wheel" is cited as being a "think tank". This conceptual "think tank" represents a consortium of skilled musicians who seek to expand their collective musical vocabularies. Medicine Wheel is not quite as cerebral in scope and intent as one might surmise. Overall, the music is prone to appear deep, multicolored, vigorous, and at times unorthodox; yet, the scope and vision of the entire listening experience yields many rewards. The opening cut "Spy" is a melodic treat which features a nice memorable hook summoning thoughts of famed 1960's Blue Note sessions. It doesn't end there. Just when you feel a sense of comfort and familiarity, the song transcends into an ethereal "world music" type vamp with some illuminating sax and flute work from Blake and Nash. "Spy" evokes images of a magical, solemn existence and the theme is restated with added nuance from cellist Ulrich. "Spy" is one of the finest original jazz compositions this reviewer has heard in some time. Musicians take notice, "Spy" may represent an opportunistic vehicle for an expansive cover tune. "Buzz" emits the sensation of vast openness and at times borders on free jazz ;however, the rhythm section is the glue that dissuades the proceedings from veering off into a free-jazz romp. Not a bad thing of course but further evidence of Medicine Wheel's subliminal suggestive powers. Allison's compositions are thoroughly enjoyable and in many instances contain the crafty element of surprise. "Buzz" also incorporates a nifty percussion sequence accented by spiritual, soaring saxophones. "Quirky Dungeon" goes for the jugular utilizing a straight ahead in your face rock beat which serves as a vehicle for cellist Ulrich to strut his "cello" stuff. Ulrich attacks his cello as if he were possessed by demons or trapped in a "bat cave" as Allison suggests in the liners. "Tiny C" ends the recording with a Basie-ish piano introduction by pianist Frank Kimbrough and is augmented by a clever horn arrangement.

Ben Allison is a prolific composer, solid bassist and a musician with focus. Medicine Wheel (the band) is a perfect vehicle for Allison's futuristic yet accessible musical statements. This is a major work that demands attention !


Title: Medicine Wheel | Year Released: 1998 | Record Label: Palmetto Records


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