This morning I was fortunate enough to talk to jazz bassist, composer and bandleader, Ben Allison. Ben Allison is one of the most unique jazz musicians playing today. His work is imbued with a heavy influence in rock music that is rarely seen in today’s jazz world. His compositions are incredibly complex and use original and difficult rhythms.
Ben Allison’s newest album, Think Free, came out barely two weeks ago and is his third with Steve Cardenas. Coinciding with the album’s release is a contest called The Think Free Project where fans are asked to make two minute films of them playing Ben Allison songs or making movies with Ben Allison’s music as the soundtrack. More information about Ben Allison can be found at his website and all nine of his albums can be found on iTunes. He talks about his new album, other projects, and recommendations below.
Let’s start by talking about your newest album, Think Free out of Palmetto Records. What is the band?
The band is a new group, a new line up. Jenny Scheinman on violin, Shane Endsley on trumpet, Steve Cardenas on guitar, and Rudy Royston on drums.
What’s different about this album from your last albums?
Well this is really the third in a series, I think of the last three as being part of a new direction where I’m moving away from kind of the chamber jazz elements of my previous groups and moving towards this more rock sensibility. I grew up listening to a lot of rock music and folk music, it’s been part of my sound since I started writing music, but since the Cowboy Justice album I’ve tried to highlight that part of my history and really try to delve back into that and have that influence my music to an even greater degree. It’s so much fun to play rock music. I’m so intrigued by the idea of trying to write music that’s in one sense simple, in some sense simplistic; but has elements of detail and a subtle, unspoken complexity. So I like exploring that line between something that’s obvious and immediately accessible, and things that are more obscure and take several listening to hear. That’s actually been part of my sound and approach to music in general. With this group I’m using my love of rock beats and somewhat more of a rock instrumentation using the electric guitar, for instance, very prominently. Using that sound to explore some of those ideas.
I was actually just about to ask you about that, because the last three albums you’ve done have been with Steve Cardenas on guitar instead of a piano player, obviously that gives you a much more rock-based sound, is there any freedoms you’re getting from that as a musician?
Well I’ve always loved guitar, and I started playing guitar as my first instrument I’m talking about when I was five to 13 or 14. And because I’m such a fan of rock music, that was the instrument. I’ve always loved the guitar; however, when I started getting into jazz in high school and then when I became a quote-un-quote jazz musician when I moved to New York, I lost touch with that kind of concept. That’s partially the result of the musicians who were on the scene at the time, this is like mid 80s. What happened with jazz guitar is that a lot of jazz guitarists were using a very processed sounding guitar sound. This is post Pat Metheny [and other] people that influenced the way a lot of jazz guitarists approached their sound. I loved that sound, and I’m singling out Pat. I love his sound, I love his music. However, as a bass player I often found it a challenge to play with – just because my sound doesn’t gel particularly well with that sound. When I’m playing with musicians whose sounds are very processed it feels like I’m playing with an organ player, with a Hammond-B3 player. There’s a reason why there aren’t bass players in organ trios. The organ is covering all of that tonality, they’re covering it all up so you don’t need a bass, a bass sounds almost thin by comparison. I had that feeling playing with a lot of guitarists on the scene at that time, this is 80s and early 90s. When I met Steve in the early 2000s, I heard in him a much grittier, mid-range, organic, unprocessed sound. He uses a very classic rock guitar with an old tube amp. It’s a really kind of classic guitar sound that felt very rock oriented, it leaves a lot of room for me and my sound, a lot of sonic room. Our sounds together make for a very nice blend. I had it in my mind always to play with a guitarist and have a group that featured guitar, it took me finding Steve for that to actually happen.
I wanted to ask you about the Jazz Composers Collective, when did it start, when did you start doing the festival?
We started the Collective many years ago, actually in 1992. By “we” I mean me and a few of my musical compatriots in New York City: Frank Kimbrough, Ted Nash, Michael Blake, Ron Horton, Matt Wilson. Our idea was to focus people’s attention on some of the new music that was being written with a special emphasis on new compositions. So, we started a concert series that ran for 11 seasons and we published a newsletter in support of that series. In 1996 we moved the whole operation over to the New School where we did a residence as composers and teachers. Shortly thereafter we had the idea of creating a festival, so the festival is actually one of the last things to happen. The festival was a six night celebration of the music of who we called “The Composers in Residence,” those were really the central characters that made the collective what it was: the people who ran the collective, the people who were featured often in a lot of what we did. By the end, the collective included hundreds of musicians. We’d premiered over 300 works and there were over 250 musicians involved some to a greater extent some to a lesser extent. So the Composers in Residence were a special group of musicians who were involved almost daily. The festival was really a celebration of their work and we’d do 10 different bands over the course of six nights at the Jazz Standard. The festival ran for five years before the Collective went dormant in 2004.
On your website there’s a video of you playing with a symphony orchestra and I wanted to know more about that and if that’s something we will see more of in the future.
I hope so, we had a ball. That was actually my second time performing with them. This is an orchestra down in Sao Paolo, Brazil called the Jazz Sinfonica and they are a full symphony orchestra with a jazz big band embedded in it and they do popular music. It’s kind of like a much hipper version of the Boston Pops. A lot of these musicians are on the scene themselves in Brazil doing jazz and samba and popular music or today. This orchestra meets once a week and they have a whole group of staff arrangers, who are all fine musicians themselves, and they have visiting artists come down to perform their works with them. The conductor’s name is Maurizio Galindo, a really great guy. He’s a classical music conductor, but he does this for the love of it because he also loves jazz and jazz musicians. On two occasions, once in 2005 and again in 2008 I went down with my group and they arranged a bunch of my music, last time it was from my album Little Things Run the World. And over the course of three or four days we would rehearse the music and arrangements and then we did two concerts at an incredible hall called the Auditorium Ibirapuera. It was really fantastic.
Right now you’re running a contest called The Think Free Project, do you want to talk about it a little bit?
Yeah, it actually just started and it will continue for several months. We travel a lot obviously, we are a band and we’re always on the road, and we’re often in far away communities. We’ll be in a little town in Sardinia or we’ll be in a little town in Iowa. And during our travels we meet a lot of very interesting, very creative artists, musicians, filmmakers. I had this thought that it would be interesting and fun to create a youtube page where these people could submit their versions of songs we had recorded and the idea is to form some kind of online community and shine a light on some of the great creative voices out there who you might never hear. We’ll see who signs up for this, but so far the people who are signing up for this are a lot of students, a lot of amateurs and a healthy amount of professionals. There are some names I recognize and a lot that I don’t, but the idea is to show the breadth of artistic voices out there. I like the idea of everyone doing their own take on one of two tunes so each version is going to be, I imagine, so totally different from the next – which is what it’s all about. I actually got the idea from Trent Reznor who did something similar about a year ago; he released a Nine Inch Nails album, I guess mainly instrumentals, like little film cues, and they put a youtube group together. Actually they called it a film festival (that’s the idea) whereby people submitted mini films using the music from the record as the score. My music has a cinematic quality to it, and I thought the contest might be a way to involve musicians and also filmmakers and visual artists into the mix. We’re excited about it; we know a lot of people have signed up. The submissions are starting to come in; it’s going to be a number of weeks before some people get their videos together but I know from the volume of people that have signed up that there’s going to be a lot of it.
The Arts Section is a blog of recommendations, what recommendations do you have for our readers?
Oh man! Wow, I have to pick a few! I listen to so much stuff, is there any criterion or is it wide open?
Wide open. Uh... My good pal Matt Wilson, if you haven’t heard his music it’s unbelievable, I highly recommend that. Contemporary, New York music scene. He’s a drummer and he leads a couple of different groups, the group that’s on this new record is his long standing quartet, I think he just calls it the Matt Wilson Quartet. They’re all kind of nuts actually [laughs]. They’re very creative and very fun loving. I highly recommend anything by Matt.
I was just listening to this music that Jenny Sheinman gave me of a guy named Lionel Belasco. This might be hard to find, if you can find it at all. His music , sounds like it’s from the 30s, based on the recording quality. That’s scant information on it, I just have mp3’s. It’s really cool early calypso. Piano, violin, guitars, some shakers, I’ve been enjoying that a lot.
In terms of film score stuff, Bernard Herrmann’s Citizen Kane. I actually haven’t seen the movie in about 10 years but the score is really unbelievable. I listen to that a lot. Film score music is really interesting to listen to when I’m driving long way or on a long bus ride, just close your eyes. Especially if you haven’t seen the movie in a long time like I said I haven’t seen Citizen Kane in like 10 years, I don’t remember exactly which cue goes with which scene so you have to fill in the blanks yourself and make your own internal movie.
Lastly, if our readers want to go to a Ben Allison concert, where can they find you?
The best thing to do, shameless plug, is go to benallison.com. We have an email sign up where you can add your email address and your city and state so if we’re playing in your area you will automatically get an update. We also have now, the latest thing, a Ben Allison iPhone app that’s available for free that also has all of our tour information. You open that up and it will show where I’m playing and how to get tickets and stuff.
Thanks a lot for spending your time with us.