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- Posted on Sep 25th 2009 12:30PM by Tad Hendrickson
This time, the bassist/composer utilizes longtime sideman Steve Cardenas (guitar) as well as newcomers (to Allison recordings) Shane Endsley (trumpet), Rudy Royston (drums) and Jenny Scheinman (violin) -- who seems to be playing with everyone of note these days. Two things that are consistent about Ben Allison recordings are the beauty and intelligence of the compositions: Melodies are at premium and tunes generally progress with a focused unity of purpose for all players involved. Suffice to say, there is none of the long-tired jazz wankery of musicians playing the opening melody and then taking turns soloing. Of the eight originals here, all from the pen of Allison, highlights include the taunt 'Kramer Vs. Kramer Vs. Godzilla,' the poppy 'Fred,' and 'Platypus,' which grooves along on the galloping back of Allison and Royston's playing.
Rather than a conventional feature or a longish review of 'Think Free,' I've appended this review with an Allison question and answer about the making of the album. This is the first of an occasional/ongoing series in this format.
SPINNER: You seem to be moving to meatier, less straight jazz sound with recent records and now this one. Is this a conscious effort on your part? If so, what is your thinking?
BEN ALLISON: I'm getting back to my roots -- namely, rock. I grew up in the 1970s in New Haven, Conn., where rock was king. It's fun as hell to play. And the crowds seem to dig it, too. If I slip in some serialism here or there, or some Alban Berg and Bernard Herrmann references, who's to know?
How long did it take to hammer the material for this album into shape and then record it?
I wrote most of this music in April and May 2009. We recorded in mid-June, mixed the following week and mastered in early July. Then I did a quick photo shoot, spent a few angst-filled days trying to come up with tune titles, and then we went to press. The whole album happened in a flash. There was only a small window before all the summer touring started and I had some other writing deadlines that complicated things.
Do you write a lot, then cherry-pick the tunes that turned out best, or how does it work?
I used to write by amassing a ton of short fragments and then sifting through them, mixing and matching them in different ways to come up with the basis for a tune. But these days, time has become an issue. So, I've been forced to become more efficient. I'm into a kind of Zen approach now, where I let ideas roll around in my head for a while -- often while I'm supposed to be doing something else, like listening to someone who's talking to me, or concentrating on driving. Then I sit down and write a tune out quickly. Most of the stuff on 'Think Free' was written in an hour or less, although a lot of it was stressed-over internally for over a year. We also workshopped a few things on the road when we toured Illinois, Iowa and Missouri in February.
You bring back a few older tunes ('Sleeping Giant' and 'Green Al') and revamp them. Why?
I like the idea of recasting my music in a new light each time I update my musical direction. It's gratifying to see the ways in which an older tune can be remade, especially in the hands of very creative musicians.
Jenny Scheinman on violin is a new addition for this album. What is it about her playing that made you want to bring her in?
Everything. Everything about her playing made me want to bring her in. She's got the ears of a composer. She really plays the tune and avoids clichés. I could say that about all of the members of the group. They're each composers and bandleaders in their own right. So they all understand what it means to try to craft something personal and special.
So, what does the title 'Think Free' mean?
This is my "coming out" album. I've been living with a secret for quite a while. It's something that most of my friends know about me but I've never divulged it in public. Although at least 10 percent of the U.S. population openly admits to being part of this group, there is tremendous pressure not to be vocal about it. And it's a political third rail. You will almost never hear a politician admit to being one. But I'm tired of dodging the issue and feel I do a disservice to all of those who are not afraid to be outspoken about who they are. It's time to stand and be counted. The truth is that I'm an ... atheist. There, I said it. I guess I've known that I was one since I was a little kid. I experimented with theism in high school. Who didn't? But I'd have to get drunk and kind of force myself. And I'd always feel "wrong" afterwards. And then I'd feel guilty for feeling "wrong." It was a dysfunctional way to live. Then I moved to Greenwich Village. And all around me were these other atheists. Just doing their thing. It all felt very natural. And I've never looked back. Wait, what was the question again?
New This Week at All About Jazz:
Ornette Coleman: Music Is a Verb
Stefon Harris: Authenticity and Audacity
30th Annual Detroit International Jazz Festival
Randy Brecker, Nostaglic Journey: Tykocin Jazz Suite
Terence Blanchard, Choices
Roy Hargrove, Emergence
AAJ is celebrating Posi-Tone Records Download Week with five consecutive days of free downloads here.
Working in conjunction with All About Jazz, Tad Hendrickson is Spinner's weekly jazz columnist.