Ben Allison on jazz's evolution: "It's always changing... it has to change; otherwise, it dies"

Categories: Profiles


Equally gifted as a bassist and composer, Ben Allison has released some outstanding and forward-thinking recordings over the course of his career, beginning with his 1996 debut, Seven Arrows, through his forthcoming release, The Stars Look Very Different Today. Slated for release in December, the album reflects his lifelong fascination with science, technology and film. While his roots are planted in jazz, he brings in a number of other influences and cinematic elements into his daring compositions. We spoke with Allison about his new album, how it's his most personal recording to date, and what elements he thinks are crucial to jazz.

See also: Sat & Sun: Ben Allison at Dazzle, 11/9-11/10

Westword: You've had a long fascination with science and space, and I wanted to get your take on the concept behind the The Stars Look Very Different Today.

Ben Allison: It's my eleventh album. It's the first under my own imprint. You reach a certain point in your career where it makes sense to step out on your own. I'm excited for this new chapter, musically, of course, and also kind of on the organizational side. This album is probably my most personal album to date because it is, musically, very personal, and also I mixed it myself and produced it myself, so it's really kind of a full extent of what an artist can do to express himself.

As I'm thinking of what to do musically and trying to come up with some original work that's new music and like new tunes, I'm always letting myself be guided and motivated and inspired by things that things that I am drawn to, just on personal level, that are extra-musical -- things that are not necessarily musical inspirations but inspiration from outside the world of music. Science is one of the things. It's a huge topic, but I have always been drawn to science, the natural world, trying to figure out things work, why things are the way they are, you know?

So as I'm putting this music together and trying to find new sounds, new textures, new ideas, new melodies, new timbres, you know, let me create some new forms for the band to play; I find myself increasingly driven by these other things, like science, you mentioned space, yeah. Anything to do with cosmology. Physics is interesting to me, the kind of thing on the side. I guess you could say science is a hobby for me.

You talked about how this record is your most personal, and I was wondering if you could expand on that.

Instrumental musicians, we don't write lyrics. Even though some of the tunes on the record do have lyrics, I didn't have a singer sing them, but in my mind I hear the lyrics. But what we do have is an unspoken language, especially with jazz musicians, who are very improvisational by nature. You think of it as pretty much like we're having a conversation. In a free form conversation the topic may be set in advance -- that is the the tune itself -- but beyond that, the sky's the limit, in terms of where we can go with it. So, we're looking for ways to spontaneously compose something... to have a conversation that makes some kind of sense where we're reacting to each other, taking cues from each other and pushing each other in different directions.

So, the nature of what we do is very personal. I can't think of three other musicians who could have made this album. The other musicians on this record are Allison Miller on drums, Steve Cardenas on guitar and Brandon Seabrook on guitar and banjo. They each have their own aesthetic, their own approach, they're own voices as instrumentalists and composers. It is, by nature, personal music. It's a thing that can only happen when you get four like-minded people in the room, and allow the conversation to unfold naturally.

As far as the compositions go, did you bring in sketches or are they a little more detailed?

It's a full range. Some of the tunes are -- for lack of a better description -- very carefully crafted. That is, I have sections that I have outlined, things that I have notated, transitions that I want to have happen. On the other end of the spectrum, we've got some stuff that is completely and totally improvised without any pre-thought. We just pressed record and started playing. It really runs the gamut. It depends on the tune. I like all of it. To me, they are all points along a spectrum.

If you can imagine somebody like Beethoven, who would write and deliberate over each note over many weeks until he crafted every single note. And within a certain limit, every performance of a Beethoven symphony will sound more or less the same way. I mean, they're the same notes, they're relatively the same tempos, same timbre, same instrumentation. Classical music, let's call that one sides of the spectrum and the other side being free jazz, where there's nothing predetermined and anything goes.

To me, they're all different modes of composition. They're all different ways to compose music. One is extremely spontaneous, and the other one is extremely premeditated. I like traveling everything in between, I like both extremes, and I like traveling that whole spectrum. I tend to air on the side of less premeditated. I think of it as I'm creating a landscape that the musicians are then free to explore.

So, in other words, setting up a kind of a world and they have to figure out what to do with that -- what they need to find in there and really add their own voice into the mix. I think that's the nature of jazz, in general, and if you keep it spontaneous enough to make it interesting for us as musicians, and hopefully for the audience, as well.

While there are elements of jazz on the record, would you still call it a jazz record? I mean, the term "jazz" can be interpreted in many different ways. How would you describe the album?

It's hard to describe in words, and if I could describe it in words, I probably wouldn't be a instrumental musician. I have a hard time putting these thoughts into words. I'd probably be a poet if I had that kind of handle over language, which I do not, so we express ourselves through sound. But if you're asking how would I describe this, and would I call this jazz, and if so, why, I like to call it jazz. I like that word, just because, for me, I think of myself as a jazz musician. It's the music I gravitated most strongly to when I was a kid, that is learning to be a musician, and by "kid," I mean teens and early twenties, when I was learning to be an instrumentalist.

I grew up as a young child listening to rock and folk and classical music and reggae and ska. My first professional experience was in a salsa band, like a dance band. But jazz as a word I think is always expanding. The nature of the music is that it is a fusion music. I don't mean that in the '70s sense, or Spyro Gyra, or anything, but that it is a coming together of different musical styles and genres.

I think jazz musicians have always tried to incorporate whatever sounds they like into their music. Either they're references to particular genres, maybe bringing in some Afro-Cuban stuff and the whole Brazilian infusion of bossa novas and sambas, or how rock grooves and sounds work their way in, soul and funk and whatever... all of these words are words that were mostly invented by people who write about music and rarely by the musicians themselves, but we use them.

So, in one way, I would just say we play music. In another way, I'm ashamed to use the word jazz, and I like the word jazz. I actually love it. And it does represent how I feel about this music. It's largely improvisational. It's the kind of music that is constantly evolving. Jazz is an evolutionary art form. It's always changing. I think it has to change otherwise it dies. It's like a shark. It's got to swim forward. That's how I feel about it.

Throughout my entire career, I've focused a lot on composition -- that is, trying to come up with new music in the jazz idiom, constantly kind of span the definition of what jazz is, and I think that I have every right to say I'm a jazz musician, and jazz musicians define the music on a daily basis. We define it.

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Craig Maybell
Craig Maybell

If it's "always changing," why does Allison's band churn out dated bullshit?

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