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Ben Allison: Layers of the City (Sonic Camera)

Review of album from bassist/bandleader

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Cover of Ben Allison album
Ben Alllison’s Layers of the City album cover

“Blowback,” the sixth track on bassist Ben Allison’s 12th album as a leader, is an object lesson in the transmutational possibilities that a piece of music can contain. An Allison original, it first appeared on his 2008 disc, Little Things Run the World, where it came off like an exercise in severe temporal displacement, with each musician seeming to operate in his own time zone. The effect was ear-catching but a little disconcerting. In the new version, most of the rhythmic wrinkles have been ironed out, and Allan Mednard’s drum pattern is clearly waltz-derived (though Allison can’t resist adding some syncopation to his bassline). The result is that this somewhat discursive piece with an eerie, floating melody—rendered here by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and guitarist Steve Cardenas—suddenly sounds like a jazz classic.

The other six cuts on Layers of the City maintain a similar mood of deep thoughtfulness with a touch of mystery. On the first two, the dreamy 11/4 meditation “Magic Number” and the more episodic “Enter the Dragon,” Allison makes his recorded debut on electric bass, adding warmth to the music’s bottom end. Pianist Frank Kimbrough provides many of the second track’s highlights; he starts out strumming his instrument’s strings, then lays into a manic solo as the rhythm section builds to a free-blowing peak. At this moment of absolute tumult, Pelt re-enters, quietly playing the head in the background—a stroke of arranging genius. The completely improvised “Get Me Offa This Thing” closes the album in alluring fashion, as Pelt uses trippy wah-wah and delay effects to channel early-’70s Miles, and Allison responds with a series of simple but mesmerizing grooves.

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Originally Published