A departure for bassist and composer Ben Allison, whose nine previous recordings featured mostly original material, this album focuses on covers, tackling material by artists as diverse as PJ Harvey, Donny Hathaway, Neil Young and Samuel Barber. Also included are a Monk tune, the Williams-Nichols pop standard “We’ve Only Just Begun” and a reworked original composition. The band is an electric-acoustic ensemble consisting of Allison, saxophonist Michael Blake, keyboardist Jason Lindner, electric guitarists Steve Cardenas and Brandon Seabrook and drummer Rudy Royston.
Thelonious Monk’s “Jackie-ing” opens, its sparse harmonic structure and straightforward motif serving as a platform for Allison’s adventurous interpretive bent, as an intended ’60s sci-fi-inspired intro evolves into a prog-rock adaptation. Harvey’s lyrics on “Missed” are conveyed through Blake’s plaintive, raspy tenor, Cardenas and Royston intensifying the tune’s rawness. Hathaway’s soul-stirring “Some Day We’ll All Be Free” gradually builds in momentum, taking on an electro-rock-noise vibe, both guitarists playing the solo section. Allison’s rendition of Young’s theme song for Philadelphia, recorded the week the U.S. Senate passed the bill to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is stripped down and slowed down for maximum effect; his reworking of “St. Ida’s Vision,” part of a song cycle by Samuel Barber, references Sun Ra’s bold sonic explorations. Closing the disc is “Broken,” recorded for two of Allison’s previous albums under different titles; this version pits the minimalism of Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts against neoclassical heavy metal.
A rewarding excursion, Action-Refraction allows us a glimpse into some of the songs and composers informing Allison’s eclectic musical universe.