Jazz at its best is about creating situations where its musicians, and sometimes its editors and producers, can perform a moment, a flash of form out of maelstroms of sound, its tinder a weird mix of blues, marching band music, and dime-turning improvisation. It takes chops and intention to make this happen, and it doesn’t always work, or runs the risk of being admired simply for being difficult. Perhaps because of this and the common belief that jazz’s golden era is behind it, it is a music that finds itself increasingly in the academy; cast out by pop culture for nearly half a century now, it has found solace and refuge in Deep Thought rather than in the visceral response that fed its early fires. Ever the home of restless artistry, however, jazz does continue to flourish in its original state, an outsider, a dirty and punk-ish thing, much like its ugly, addle-brained cousin, rock and roll. They make an uneasy pair, reminding each other of lost youth, which is why “jazz rock” in all its fusion can be a hateful muzak-y thing that is one’s reward for waiting for the doctor or being put on hold.
Or it can be the hands that lift us to ascension. Which is why I’m writing this.
Ben Allison’s latest record, The Stars Look Very Different Today, continues the bassist’s journey into composing acoustic/electric jazz for a band that, consistently since 2006’s Cowboy Justice, has rocked behind the work of guitarist Steve Cardenas. Cardenas is joined here by guitarist Brandon Seabrook, furthering I think Allison’s intention at broadening his palette, and this is not jazz guitar in the sense of Christian, Reinhardt, Farlow or Metheny. Far more Sonny Sharrock or Marc Ribot, spacey and distorted, jagged, chunky and riffy. Completed by the marvelously sympathetic drumming of Allison Miller, it is the territory of Tortoise and Pell Mell, and makes me believe that Ben Allison might be the guy, the one who is reviving jazz for those of us who never saw it as separate from other music, putting it in the context of seasoned cats while retaining a kind of indie band ethic, casting a wide and wild — even grungey — net, letting go. Watch this band in action — jamming on “Roll Credits,” originally on Allison’s 2008 album Little Things Run the World, and you’ll get it:
Is he a jazz prophet? A rock and roll savior? I’ve been listening to Ben Allison’s work for a decade now, since Buzz (the one jazz album I can put on in a party and always expect the “Who IS this?” question — it is a fantastic, lovely record, and contains as its finale the only Beatles cover that to my mind ever worked), and to hear an artist progress as he has is a rare pleasure. His early albums are wonderful examples of fairly straight post bop, but the long view is more bracing; it’s about an evolving musician and composer who challenges both jazz and rock form, as well as the artist’s role in creation, targeting in particular the shrugging status quo of social media’s — and its consumers’ — casual attitudes towards artists (see Ben’s blog for his search for justice for artists and their work, starting here: http://benallison.com/my-youtube-experiment/).
Contrary to what its title suggests, The Stars Look Very Different Today does not contain a David Bowie cover. Instead it riffs on the themes in Space Oddity, and the space odyssey era that produced it and which it signified. Like all Allison’s work, this is less constraint than starting point, so the album isn’t a sci-fi adventure as much as it is a feel, which is why we hear “The Ballad of Joe Buck,” a banjo-led homage to Jon Voigt’s character in Midnight Cowboy, tucked amidst the record’s more electrometal (!) explorations (“D.A.V.E.,” “Dr. Zaius,” “Neutron Star”). The hallmark of all of Ben Allison’s records is present, intact, and sacred, and that’s a persistence towards beauty. As a composer, his talent is an unafraid embrace of melody and a willingness to push at its seams and against its textures, to find the heart of the muse. It’s why his music inhabits its own era.
Ben Allison’s no jazz prophet or rock and roll savior. I think he’s going for something else entirely.