Ben Allison: The Collectivist

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Ben Allison
By Caroline Mardok
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Ben Allison
By Caroline Mardok

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I was in school that I had to be able to play certain ways in order to make a living as a bass player,” recalls Ben Allison between bites of chicken katsu curry don at Tokyo Lamen, his favorite sushi joint in Greenwich Village. “Well, I soon realized that wasn’t true.”

Indeed, Allison has taken an alternate path since arriving in New York City in 1981. Along the way he’s made great strides as both player-composer and bandleader. And as co-founder of the Jazz Composers Collective (JCC)—a musician-run, nonprofit organization that functions as the AACM did in Chicago during ‘60s or the Black Artists Group did in St. Louis during the ’70s—he has helped create a vibrant scene where none 
existed before.

Allison serves as the organization’s artistic director and is one of five composers-in-residence. The group is dedicated to “constructing an environment where artists can exercise their ideals of creating and risking through the development and exploration of new music.” As of this writing, the Collective has presented 84 concerts (at the New School University music auditorium), featuring the works of 42 composers, the performances of over 150 musicians, and, perhaps most notably, the premiere of more than 300 new works. The Collective recently celebrated its wide range of musical expression in a weeklong February showcase at the Jazz Standard in New York City featuring groups led by the composers in residence: Allison, Michael Blake, Ron Horton, Ted Nash and Frank Kimbrough.

Allison’s own group, Medicine Wheel, is but one outlet these days for the gifted and open-minded bassist. He’s also co-director (with pianist Kimbrough) of the acclaimed Herbie Nichols Project, a tribute band formed in 1994 and dedicated to the music of the brilliant, if under-recognized, pianist-composer. In addition, Allison holds down the bottom end of Michael Blake’s Free Association, Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, Ted Nash’s Double Quartet Plus One, the Frank Kimbrough Trio, the Ron Horton Sextet, the Tom Christiansen Quintet and the Andy Biskin Quintet. All of these kindred spirits have a mutual interest in pushing the envelope on improvisation within the context of intelligent, fully realized and challenging composition. “What’s interesting is that each band sounds really different,” says Allison. “Ron Horton’s band sounds totally different than mine. Free Association is totally different. Because so much of the leader is stamped on there. We each do our thing but each leader makes choices about what things they want to do. They create the concept. So even though I have a lot of input to the way Free Association sounds, Blake ultimately makes the decisions about what direction he wants to go in. So I’ll suggest some things—half of it he keeps, half of it he leaves. It’s the way he mixes all the sounds that makes it uniquely his thing.”

Allison and his JCC colleagues emerged in New York at the peak of young-lions mania. While Wynton Marsalis reigned supreme and hordes of aspiring musicians followed his lead, Allison and other like-minded musicians were not inclined to go down that young-lions path. “I had no choice in that,” says Ben. “First of all, I couldn’t have been a young lion if I wanted to, for a lot of reasons. A lot of guys in those days were playing bebop and they were good at it, and they liked playing it because they were good at it. I was OK at it; I wasn’t great at it. I could hang at a certain level but I never really felt a strong affinity for the music. It didn’t really get me right here [points to his heart]. I didn’t feel really particularly connected to the so-called downtown scene either, and there was a lot happening there. I just didn’t feel like I could choose one scene and stick with it as my thing.

“So for me it became more about finding kindred spirits,” he continues. “One of the great things about New York is the sheer amount of great musicians there are here, and it’s just a matter of time before you find people that feel the way you do, or at least who you feel deeply comfortable playing with. That’s kind of where the Jazz Composers Collective started. It was a thing of finding a bunch of contemporaries who all felt the same way or felt good playing together and could inspire each other to kind of create our own little scene.”

After struggling along through the ’80s, Allison founded the Jazz Composers Collective in 1992 to begin showcasing his own music and that of his talented contemporaries like Kimbrough, Nash and Horton. “We had a group at the time called Happy House,” Allison recalls. “We played some Ornette Coleman tunes and we were listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett’s band from the ’70s, the American quartet. So we were emulating all of that. But then it got to the point, for me, where I started to feel self conscious about emulating. When you’re learning it’s good to emulate other musicians because it gives you a foothold and helps you learn the language, but at some point you start to feel self-conscious about it. I remember walking into a club around that time and somebody said, ‘Oh, it’s Wilbur Haden.’ I think he was trying to say I sounded like Wilbur Ware and Charlie Haden. And that really pissed me off, but he was kind of onto something. I mean, I had listened to those guys a lot and was inspired by them, but you really have to break at some point.”

For Allison, finding his voice on the instrument was a process of editing. “You begin thinking, ‘I don’t want to play that, I don’t want to sound like that, I sound too much like that, I don’t want to do that anymore.’ And it’s a thing of constantly paring it down so hopefully you’re left with a kind of leaner, keener sense of self. That takes a long time and it’s an ongoing process.”

While Allison graduated from New York University in 1989, his debut as a leader, Seven Arrows (Koch Jazz), didn’t come out until 1995. “So it took me a good amount of time after hitting the scene, so to speak. Actually, for the first year after I got out of college, I wasn’t even a musician. I worked for a construction company by day and played at night—sucking at both. Too tired to play and then too tired to get up and be on the job at 7 a.m. It became clear that I had to make a choice at some point so I took that leap of faith about a year after I graduated, and it’s just been an ongoing process since then.”

Although Allison may have steadfastly avoided the young-lions route during the ’80s, he nevertheless did feel a kind of pervasive peer pressure created by the phenomenon. “One of the things I was struck with at that time was it seemed like if you were 20 and didn’t have your record contract, it was all over for you,” he says. “There was a real emphasis on youth then and I remember actually panicking in college; I had these panic attacks about not having a record deal because I was nearing my 22nd birthday and I wasn’t even close to getting that together. So I asked [teacher and mentor] Joe Lovano about it and he said, ‘Man, you know, don’t be in such a hurry. Look at me.’ He was maybe 37 at the time and it had taken him that long. He had a couple of records out but that’s when he started to hit, right when I was in school—the end of my tenure—late ’80s. And his advice to me was: ‘Just be consistent and persistent. Knock on any doors but don’t knock ‘em down. And in the meantime, develop your craft, develop your sound, develop your band. And when you’re ready, people will hear it—as long as you keep getting out there and doing your thing, being persistent, they’ll hear it. And when they come to you, it’ll be more on your terms rather than forcing something to happen that’s not ready to happen.’ So I felt that by the time Seven Arrows was released, I was ready. I felt compositionally I had come a long way.”

Seven Arrows sounds like a fully realized project done by an accomplished and mature composer. His follow-up, 1998’s Medicine Wheel (his debut for Palmetto), again struck a wonderful balance between form and freedom while 1999’s Third Eye showed a confident composer in full stride. He adds to his impressive body of work with Riding the Nuclear Tiger (Palmetto), a recording that should solidify Allison’s reputation as one of the most original composers today as well as a strong organizational force on the New York music scene.

“One of the reasons I started writing music was to counterbalance my weaknesses as a player,” Allison explains. “The jazz language is so rich and complex, there’s so much history, there’s so much to know. And I came up in the era of jazz education, the ‘80s, where that hit really big. So there was this huge body of knowledge that you had to assimilate. I played certain things well, certain things not as well. And I figured out that the best way to sound good was to create situations for myself that I sounded good in. That’s kind of where the composition comes from. It’s just about trying to figure out ways to make myself sound good and then extend that to my friends by writing vehicles for them to do what they do best.”

Some of his tunes spring from what he calls ‘happy accidents,’ like “Charlie Brown’s Psychedelic Christmas” from the new CD. “It’s actually an older tune of mine that was written in the days when I had a piano and no piano chops,” says Allison. “I started playing something and it was actually in two different keys. I realized that’s what it was afterwards—kind of a mistake the way it came out, but I recorded it anyway and it sounded pretty cool so I wrote it out. It’s not a very schooled piece of music, but that’s kind of what I dig about it, like when I listen to Paul Motian’s music. He writes a lot of stuff that’s ‘wrong’—a dominant chord with a major seventh in it. That’s like chapter two in the Don’t Do This book but it sounds so cool and those guys make great music out of it. So this is one of those types of tunes. And in the studio I had to reassure the guys that, ‘Yes, those wrong notes are intentional.’ The approach we took on it was pretty casual. I didn’t talk too much about the tune other than to say, ‘Leave lots of space and let’s hope we make some cool sounding mistakes on it.’”

Allison explains that his songwriting process is very improvisatory. “I often don’t know where it’s coming from. I’m not consciously going for anything. A lot of it is if somebody will play something cool on the gig, then I’ll remember that and later write a tune using that. So a lot of my music is, ‘Remember that thing you did last week? Do that here for eight bars.’ When somebody plays something that’s so cool that it’s way cooler than anything I could’ve thought of, I’ll try to write a song around that. Consequently, I feel funny sometimes taking credit for this music because so much of it is the thing that these guys play, their personal take on it. And my job, I sometimes feel, is more just as orchestrator, harnessing that and directing it particular ways that appeal to me. I think the strength of a leader is being able to strike that balance between letting musicians do what they want and also not really letting them do what they want; allowing them to do what they’re good at and what they feel but putting it into a certain context.”

Born in New Haven, CN, in 1966, Allison was not exposed to much jazz as a child. “My parents listened to mostly folk music—Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and the Beatles along with European classical stuff. And my mom sang in a bunch of amateur choirs doing Renaissance music. Jazz was something that I came to later in life. I went to an art high school, the educational Center for the Arts, and they had a jazz program. And then when I came to New York and went to NYU in 1985, I got exposed to more of the music through teachers like Joe Lovano, Jim McNeely and Steve LaSpina.”

He eventually gravitated toward the upright bass after a brief period of flirting with the electric bass. “I played electric in high school,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t dare do it now; I’d be too embarrassed to. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because when I discovered the acoustic bass it felt like ‘the one.’ It felt at the time that I could get so many more sounds out of it. There’s such a timbral range, it just felt like that was a life’s work right there.”

Along the way he has boldly experimented with such devices as weaving paper through the strings of the bass (as on “Buzz” from Medicine Wheel), playing behind the bridge for a kalimbalike sound (as on “Four Folk Songs” from Third Eye), hitting the strings of the bass with a drumstick (“Mantra” from Third Eye) or detuning his instrument for a Moroccan sentir effect (“Tectonics” from Riding the Nuclear Tiger).

Bowing, he adds, is not a high priority in his arsenal of techniques. “Bowing is an example of one of those things I was told I had to do and I never really heard myself doing. I really appreciate it when people can do it. I mean, I love Major Holley and Slam Stewart and Paul Chambers but I never heard myself doing that. Consequently, I never really spent a lot of time with it. In fact, I tend to use the other side of the bow rather than the hair side of the bow.”

Along with Wilbur Ware and Charlie Haden, Charles Mingus provided Allison with inspiration during his formative years. “I don’t know if this is legal to say, but one of the things I always loved about him was his ‘sloppy technique.’ I mean, some of his technique is kind of out there. It doesn’t smack of conservatory training. It’s not like Neils-Henning Ørsted Pedersen or early Eddie Gomez. Even though he’s extremely facile it’s more like Richard Davis in that it’s kind of in between the notes and there’s all these strange sounds and his time thing is really personal. It’s not like a metronome; it fluctuates a lot. And I related to that style of bass playing. Since I wasn’t going to be the type of machine-gun-style player, it kind of gave me license to play it how I felt it, how I experienced it.

“And lo and behold, all these years later that more personal approach packs the biggest emotional wallop for me,” he continues. “Those guys and all their kind of funky ways of playing has really registered deeply with me. Again, it depends on how you define technique but one definition is ‘the ability to get what’s inside of you out.’ And those guys were masters at that, even though their methods didn’t follow any more traditional definitions of technique.”

Most of the music that Allison writes has evolved from a unique workshop situation he has set up at his longstanding Sunday night gig at Kush, a Lower East Side Moroccan restaurant he co-owns with a close friend. “Almost all of it comes from experimenting and just messing around on the gig,” Ben explains. “That’s one of the great things about having a regular gig. Sometimes it’s hard to play in the same place every week, but it’s been an education for me to struggle through those times and just show up and play and try to make music every week, even when you’re not feeling it. And then it comes around again and you’re like, ‘This is it!’ And you go through a really great period of extreme creativity and the band sounds so killing, everybody’s playing really great and it feels really new and fresh. And then, you know, it sinks back down again.

“But struggling through those times,” he continues, “is really important. There’s something about that because it’s inevitable. The other option is to just quit, to stop. But for me, I often learn a lot by kind of like putting it out there and trying to make it work every time.”

And so far, his success rate has been extremely high indeed.

Listening Pleasures

Oum Kolthoum: Enta Omri (Sidi Records)
Ahmed Abdul-Malik: Jazz Sahara (Riverside)
Roberta Flack: First Take (Atlantic)
Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol)
Charles Mingus: Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia)

Gearbox

Ben Allison plays a Prescott upright bass made in Vermont in 1840. His strings are Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore, standard gauge. He also uses a David Gage pickup called The Realist and a Polytone amp.

Originally published in April 2001

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