As Art Lange persuasively argued in the liner notes to Dr. Cyclops’ Dream (Soul Note), the second Herbie Nichols Project album, “There is a prevalent and pervasive misunderstanding in jazz, along the lines that the quality of the music is to be measured primarily through the improvised solo,” pointing out how the best jazz is a tension between composition and improvisation. Bassist Ben Allison, whose leadership role of the Nichols Project has earned him considerable kudos, is well aware of this, having formed the Jazz Composers Collective 10 years ago. Indeed, of the nine tracks on his new CD, Peace Pipe, all but two are by him.
Discretely broadening the expressive range of jazz through his use of Mamadou Diabate, a kora player from Mali, or through Tomas Ulrich’s cello on “Third Rail” and “Disposable Genius,” Allison’s ensemble celebrates the primacy of the composer by insisting the improviser fits into the overall design of each piece. Although Diabate is not always successfully integrated into the ensemble, the concept of varying the tonal quality of the acoustic jazz ensemble deserves praise. While there is no wide-eyed blowing, fellow Nichols Project members Michael Blake on saxophone (particularly on “Peace Pipe”) and Frank Kimbrough on piano (a very witty solo on “Slap Happy”) play with measured abandon, perfectly in tune with the wide variety of moods Allison’s compositions present them, while Michael Sarin on drums eloquently disposes of the metric and rhythmic challenges that are thrown his way, such as Jamaican rock-steady (“Peace Pipe”) or the arching accompaniment of “Disposable Genius.”
With Peace Pipe, his fifth album as a leader, Allison has added another successful recording to his small but well-crafted discography.