Ben Allison, Lost in the Stars

ImageJazz 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.

3 thoughts on “Ben Allison, Lost in the Stars

  1. carleolson

    Great review, Craig; thank you for posting it! I’ve been listening to Allison for about the same amount of time, and have been impressed by the arc of his artistic journey. This new album seems, at first, like a sudden departure, but it really is in keeping with Allison’s restless nature and his constant, if not always overt, appropriation of other forms of music. There is a notable group of young and young-ish jazz musicians who are seamlessly incorporating rock, electronica, folk, etc., with often exciting results: Robert Glasper comes to mind, as do Jeremy Pelt, Brad Mehldau, Craig Taborn, Kris Bowers, Vijay Iyer, Hiromi, Tony Grey, and others. (If you’ve not heard Bowers’ debut album, “Heroes + Misfits”, I highly recommend it.)

    One question: when you write that jazz “is a music that finds itself increasingly under siege by the academy”, what are some examples? My take is that the relationship between jazz and the ivory tower is a complicated one: on one hand, it is kept alive in many ways by jazz departments and such; on the other hand, that relationship can turn jazz into a sort of museum piece, divorced from the innovative spirit that so often produces the best jazz. I’d be interested in your thoughts. Thanks!

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  2. Carl, thanks for the recommendations and the great question: can you tell I was trying to provoke a little bit? I think you sum up really well the factors in play regarding jazz’s relationship with academia. Post World War II, I think there was a real push to legitimize jazz as serious music, and it was largely successful based on the ambassadorial work of musicians like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the “jazz goes to college” records that made careers for folks like Stan Kenton and Dave Brubeck. You also have jazz being set up as the “other” to rock and roll’s simplicity. In a lot of ways, despite the changing musical landscape and the blurring of the genre lines, this has stuck, and has also been influenced by jazz musicians finding careers in academia after their heydays as recording and touring artists. As a result the gut punch that was Louis Armstrong’s “Hot” records up through the primal howl of Miles Davis’s electric years is lost on musicians who are mannered, who are playing what sounds like jazz more than creating what in spirit is jazz. Of course this is a broad generalization, with an exception being someone like Ben Allison.

    Perhaps related to this: I have a friend who wrote a book on a loft in New York City that was a center for jazz in the 1950s and 1960s. He has observed that the sanctifying of jazz has been its undoing in another way: high ticket prizes for jazz shows compared to what you might find for a rock band of similar fame or notoriety. Getting itself back into clubs and in front of people is not something jazz is very good at anymore. I think in this sense it could use a more rock and roll attitude.

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  3. carleolson

    Good stuff, Craig; thank you! The history of jazz is really fascinating; it is far, far more complex than most people know, and you’ve hit many of the key issues in short order. I think that jazz today is, in a couple of ways, in a situation similar to prog rock: it gets little or no love from the dominant pop culture; it has a small but loyal fan base, and it often struggles (especially in the U.S.) to attract and gain new listeners and supporters.

    The positive, however, is also similar: there is an amazing amount of good to great jazz music being produced on a regular basis, and much of it coming from artists who are middle-aged and much younger. And while there are plenty of jazz artists who are producing music that is either nostalgic or “safe” (which is not the same as “bad”, of course), many are pushing the boundaries.

    It seems to me that jazz has long had this inherent tension between looking back to its roots and traditions and looking forward to new sounds, influences, and possibilities; in fact, I think that one without the other leads to either heavily nostalgic, staid music or stuff that is so “out there” that is will never gain much footing (though aspects might be eventually assimilated). The best music comes from the constant interplay between rooted tradition and creative experimentation, as Allison and Co. demonstrate (I hold the same view re: theology, but that’s another story). All said, the state of jazz appears to be both very bad—in terms of widespread support and popularity—and quite good—in terms of excellent music being produced.

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