Bands led by bassists are something of a novelty, even today. From the blowing sessions led by Paul Chambers in the 1950s, to Mingus' innovations, and on to modern day masters like Mario Pavone, the gentle giant of jazz axes has, in a leadership role, a limited but colorful history. In the great tradition of these musicians, a new generation of bassist bandleaders - exemplified for some time by Ben Allison, and more recently by Michael Bates - has emerged on the NY jazz scene.
Cowboy Justice is a collection of eight characteristically catchy, yet brilliant, Allison originals, with John Barry's theme from "Midnight Cowboy thrown in as a beautiful intermission. The band, a quartet, is small by Allison's standards, but massive in the talent department. Jeff Ballard's lithe beats and overlapping polyrhythms are the perfect foil to Allison's buoyant ostinato on "Tricky Dick," setting the stage for the rollicking, effervescent trumpet of Ron Horton.
Like Mingus before him, Allison doesn't shy away from political statements in his music, readily mentioning in the liner notes that "Tricky Dick is none other than the USA's beloved Vice President, and that the powerchord laden "Emergency is an ode to the "Bush administration's [bungled] response to the attacks of 9/11."
Although political statements by artists are relatively common today, Allison and company are quick to remind the listener that Cowboy Justice is about the music. The leader's new compositions are a delight and the pared down arrangements are transcendentally simple. "Ruby's Roundabout," an ethereal lullaby written for Allison's two year old daughter, features the composer on acoustic guitar and illustrates this superbly.
A lesser known, but equally deserving, talent on the double bass is Michael Bates. His newest album is a mélange of original compositions, along with a reworking of a Prokofiev sonata, that shows not only Bates' influences, but the path he has embarked on as an individual artist.
Following the brief solo exposition "Small Obstacles," in which Bates showers the listener with a flurry of classically inspired arco and pizzicato passages, the band enters with the driving "On Equilibrium." Listeners not familiar with tenor saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff and trumpeter Kevin Turcotte are in for a surprise on this track, as the two horns solo with fire over the lightly swinging drums of Mark Timmermans and the deep groove of Bates' bass. Nachoff especially is shown to great effect throughout the entire album, whether on saxophone, clarinet or bass clarinet.
As a composer, Michael Bates displays great promise. Tunes like "Charcoal and "Prodigal show off his knack for writing quirky, original music with unique shifting meters and textures. The sharp horn dissonances over long, bowed notes in "St. Helen are a high point of the album. Bates' playing, both on the two solo tracks and in all the ensemble sections, is beyond reproach and, coupled with his composition skills, complete a package that makes him a player to watch.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: 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.
A Fine Balance
Tracks: Small Obstacles; On Equilibrium; Entrance; Charcoal; Prodigal; Sonata in C Major (Prokofiev); Partly Innocent; St. Helen; Coppertone; Simple Interlude.
Personnel: Michael Bates: bass; Quinsin Nachoff: tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Kevin Turcotte: trumpet; Mark Timmermans: drums.