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Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel: Third Eye

Jack Bowers By

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This is bassist Allison’s second recording with his group Medicine Wheel, and again he has mapped out an astute game plan and brought together sidemen who are capable of carrying it out. Allison, the founder and artistic director of the Jazz Composers Collective in New York City, is far more interested in the broad panorama of sound than in labels or doctrinal approaches to Jazz, and his music is not easy to categorize. To say that I found much of it less than absorbing reveals more about my own deep–seated biases than it does about Allison’s freewheeling approach to composing and arranging. Clearly, he knows what he’s about, but for me to wholly appreciate and warm to Third Eye I’d probably need a third ear, as the two I have are undeniably less than suitable for the task at hand. As a lifeline for people such as me who tend to flounder in deeper musical waters, Allison provides instructive thumbnail sketches of each song, tracing its genesis and development (he wrote all but the lyrical “Love Is Proximity,” which was composed by pianist Herbie Nichols). “Kush” isn’t the Dizzy Gillespie composition but a Middle Eastern–style tune named for a bar in NYC where Allison’s band plays regularly and written to feature Ara Dinkjian on oud and cümbüs. The seductive “Random Sex and Violins” is based on motivic fragments from an Alban Berg string quartet, “A Day in the Life of Man Ray” has harmonies based on Billy Strayhorn’s “Azure,” “Hot Head” was born from the frustration felt by Allison and fellow musicians before the Jazz Composers Collective was formed, and the brief (1:45) “Pot Head” employs a theme that the group stumbled on accidentally while rehearsing the melody of “Hot Head” slowly to make sure everyone was on the same page. “Mantra,” a colorful groover that showcases Blake’s full–bodied tenor, Allison’s resonant bass and Ballard’s vibrant drumming, was commissioned for a Jazz Composers Collective concert last year, while “Andrew,” which Allison says took only about five minutes to write, is a ballad whose pleasing melody is brightly articulated by Allison, pianist Kimbrough and cellist Ulrich. Although I can’t honestly report that Third Eye knocked me for a loop, I must concede that Allison is a talented composer/arranger/bassist, and that Medicine Wheel has much to offer the more open–minded (and open–eared) listener.

Track listing: Four Folk Songs; Love Is Proximity; Kush; Random Sex and Violins; Mantra; A Life in the Day of Man Ray; Andrew; Hot Head; Pot Head (51:53).


Title: Third Eye | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Palmetto Records


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