Ron Horton - tp
Steve Cardenas - g
Ben Allison - b (website | myspace)
Gerald Cleaver - d
Over the last couple of years, I'd forgotten how much I loved Ben Allison's music. The advantage of rediscovering a lost love is that you can be surprised, or at least charmed, all over again by things you already know. The misleading groove of "Respiration"'s superposed meters was as simultaneously hypnotising and startling as I remembered it, with bass and drums hitting downbeats together in unexpected places. I sang along again to "Green Al"'s lazy lope, to which Gerald Cleaver gave a slow, hip hop-inflected groove. Buzz, the album those compositions appear on, is a gem.
Most of the night's repertoire, however, was taken from Allison's latest CD, Cowboy Justice (you can hear three of its tracks on his website). Like the CD, the concert began with "Tricky Dick." The recorded version showcases the busy propulsion so clean-cut that it would sound anally-retentive if it wasn't so damned great that is Jeff Ballard's specialty. Gerald Cleaver is a very different drummer. Ben Ratliff described his group Uncle June as "dense, woody, tangled," and that could go for Cleaver's drumming, too. The density and tangle don't come from an abundance of notes, but from lingering sounds and textures, and a certain rhythmic float. On "Four Folk Songs," while Allison maintained steady waltzing arpeggios, Cleaver glided into a light, bossa-derived beat so evenly flowing that it became impossible to tell what meter he was, if any.
Whether playing old or new tunes, Allison's music is first and foremost based in song and the group cohesion necessary to create it. At the intermission, IVN told me that she liked the trumpet because it made up for the absence of the human voice in much jazz. Ron Horton's role as singer was clear on John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" and John Barry's Midnight Cowboy theme. The originals found their own ways of rooting the solos firmly in each one's melody and overall mood as much as on its harmony. The former being more concrete and personal than the latter (thankfully for jazz, you can't copyright a chord progression), this, along with arrangements that are diverse and careful without being fussy or gratuitous, gives each piece a cohesion that don't make them feel like head-solos-head throw-aways. Allison's own solos were brilliant, both lyrical and rhythmic.
There were incursions outside of mellowness, too. "Emergency" mutated a loose, quicksand groove to a slow, head-banging riff for Horton to soar over. Most impressive was "Blabbermouth." It started wwith gentle, kora-like arpeggios, added intrusive, out-of-tempo guitar and trumpet interjections and climaxed with a variation on the old trading fours formula: drum solos alternated with full band collective improvisations, each louder and more aggressive with every iteration.
It would be easy to qualify Allison as mainstream because his music is not abrasive, but I love how he integrates extended techniques, such as plucking with both hands below the bridge to evoke a cross between a kora and a gamelan, or "Emergency"'s outbursts, into a highly melodic sensibility.