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Ben Allison: The Stars Look Very Different Today

Troy Collins By

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Conservatory-educated jazz musicians often follow a similar developmental path as they mature, typically expanding the relatively narrow focus of their academic training to reexamine the non-jazz related music styles that initially inspired them. Take the young lions of the pre-millennial era for example; most have extended their purview beyond straight-ahead hard bop to incorporate aspects of the funk, r&b and soul music they grew up with. The same paradigm exists for their avant-garde counterparts, whose demographic is generally raised on rock.

Bassist and composer Ben Allison is indicative of the latter group; The Stars Look Very Different Today, his 11th album and the first issued on his Sonic Camera Records imprint, finds the stalwart bandleader moving further away from the chamber and world music experiments of his 1990s output and deeper into the rock-oriented sounds of his formative influences, subtly hinted at in the title. All of the songs were produced, composed, arranged and mixed by Allison, making it his most personal recording to date.

With rising drummer Allison Miller by his side, Allison is joined by longstanding associate Steve Cardenas and recent recruit Brandon Seabrook on guitars; eschewing horns in this lineup, Allison has finally formed a band truly capable of realizing his vision. Following the evolving arc of his previous Palmetto releases, including Action-Refraction (2011), Think Free (2009), Little Things Run the World (2008) and Cowboy Justice (2006), this session encompasses stylistic influences beyond conventional jazz, weaving bittersweet melodies, lush harmonies and rousing rhythms culled from country, folk and rock music into an opulent mosaic imbued with his own distinct lyricism.

Embracing the diversity of traditional American vernacular, Allison's engaging compositions encourage Cardenas and Seabrook to explore the fully amplified potential of their instruments, veering from delicate finger-picked arpeggios to scorching leads and feedback-laced drones. This shift in Allison's aesthetic yields some of his most compelling work, with the hypnotic opener, "D.A.V.E.," ascending from surf-inflected linearity to climactic Sonic Youth-inspired fretwork in under six minutes. The jubilant "Swiss Cheese D," anthemic "Neutron Star" and multihued "Kick It Man" traffic in similar territory; evoking past masters, the latter number showcases Miller's vivacious drumming, which subtly recalls Ginger Baker's thunderous technique.

But Allison's oeuvre includes more than rollicking barn burners; his tuneful sensibility manifests repeatedly throughout the date, as demonstrated by the pastoral Americana of "No Other Side" and the heartland twang of "The Ballad of Joe Buck," which is buoyed by Seabrook's stunning banjo variations. In these and similar works, like the cinematic "Dr. Zaius," Cardenas and Seabrook's dynamic sensitivity and intuitive rapport convey a sense of understated euphony to the leader's memorable themes, whose magnanimous contributions subtly underpin the proceedings.

Emboldened by talented peers empathetic to his populist inclinations, The Stars Look Very Different Today is Allison's most accessible album to date and a key example of his continuing growth as a composer and bandleader.

Track Listing: D.A.V.E.; Dr. Zaius; The Ballad of Joe Buck; Neutron Star; No Other Side; Kick It Man; Swiss Cheese D; Improvisus.

Personnel: Ben Allison: bass; Steve Cardenas: guitar; Brandon Seabrook: guitar, banjo; Allison Miller: drums.

Title: The Stars Look Very Different Today | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Sonic Camera Records

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D.A.V.E.

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