In conversation with ben allison
by Tom Greenland
Since his initial emergence in early 1990s as part of the Jazz Composers Collective, New York bassist, composer, and bandleader Ben Allison has resisted and defied easy categorization. He partakes equally of “downtown” and “uptown” aesthetics, as well as a host of other influences, including Led Zeppelin, television soundtrack music, altered timbres and extended techniques. He has developed, ultimately, what could be termed a “mid-town” sound, something uniquely his own. Over coffee at one of his favorite local spots, Allison had much to share.
One thing people think when they think of you is that you have a wide range of things that you can do musically. You’ve played with what we might call “downtown” players and also mainstream musicians, and you definitely have strong roots in your music. Can you talk about that? I’m not trying to pigeonhole you or anything like that, but maybe you could talk about boundaries, and what is jazz, and how you see your role in defining that, or not defining that.
That’s a big question. . . . I came up in the late eighties when there was, at least outwardly, a kind of division in the scene; I mean, people wrote about it a lot, and write. People use those terms: “uptown,” and “downtown,” and “mainstream.” A lot of the musicians that I knew did their best to avoid those kinds of monikers, at least a lot of my contemporaries. The people that I tended to gravitate towards often were the kind of musicians that straddled both scenes, that liked to work in a wide variety of settings.
Ben Allison, photo by Tom Greenland
Who are we talking about here?
Well, for instance, a lot of my compatriots in the Jazz Composer’s Collective. That was our non-profit organization that we started back in the early nineties. As you say, I was involved in playing with a lot of the people that were representative of quote-unquote “downtown” music, and also more mainstream, or “uptown,” music, and we always felt like—at least I felt like I didn’t want to pledge allegiance to one camp or the other. I really felt like there was value in many different styles of music and the kind of thing that I wanted to do usually involved elements of almost everything.
I think of jazz as a fusion music. At its core, it’s a fusion music; it really is — from its infancy, in my opinion, a coming-together of different musical traditions, and it’s always had that at its core. And it’s always also been an evolutionary music; it’s always been the kind of music that evolves over time when different groups come together and trade ideas. And I really wanted to be in an environment where there was a lot of trading of musical ideas. And there’s a certain dogma that comes with associating yourself with a camp, and I wanted to avoid that. I like the idea of organizing and putting a name to what we were doing . . . but I also felt like the key would be to really have the ability to define it on a daily basis, just by the music that we were playing.
So we weren’t necessarily associated with “uptown” or “downtown” or whatever. It was really our own thing. I thought there was a lot of similarity of viewpoint with some of my friends. We were all really interested in composition, jazz composition, as a guiding force behind our music — that is, new music. Our definitions of composition among the members of the collective are extremely varied. For instance, Ted Nash, the saxophonist who was involved early on, wrote rather elaborate, sometimes fairly through-composed pieces of music, whereas Frank Kimbrough, for example — a pianist involved early with the collective — would write two or three bars, a little scrap on a piece of paper. But the idea was, no matter how much you wrote down — or didn’t write down — the idea was that we were trying to create something specific. It wasn’t random. It wasn’t entirely left to chance. Each person’s group had a particular sound.
So even if Frank’s group, for instance, was largely improvised, if he didn’t notate a lot of things, the vibe of his approach was — is — clear. I mean, as a bass player in his group I would approach his music from a certain mind-set. I was always thinking to serve the tune. That’s what I mean by compositional: it wasn’t just about the notes, it was about exploring certain kinds of sounds, certain vibes, certain moods. And those moods were more often created by the composer. They would set the stage. And that was something that we all, I think, had in common, and we all also had in common a desire to integrate a lot of different useful styles into our own particular mixes.
What kind of styles were you going to?
Well I listen to every kind of music on Earth; I mean, even stuff I don’t like, I still listen to it! [laughs] That’s been my approach.
What kind of music are you drawn to, say, that you might partake of in your composition?
I’ve been drawn to? You mean that I like? Oh, phew! I can’t narrow it down to any particular thing that draws me to something. I would say that the music I come back to often is music that is — well, in the Western tradition let’s say, if we’re talking about music from around these parts — I think it’s often people who are focusing on music from a composerly standpoint: people that are writing original music, people that are trying to develop recognizable sounds, so that in the first few bars you can kind of tell who it is. People who have a personal style. . . I mean, there’s a reason why Neil Young is still listened to. There’s a reason why he’s keeping legions of fans, and new fans: because he writes good tunes! And you can’t get past that, and they have a sound that is his.
Ben Allison, photo by Tom Greenland
Now, some people don’t like that sound, but everybody recognizes it—well, a lot of people recognize it—and he can write good songs. And that helps; that always works; that always just stands the test of time. Duke Ellington is another example; [Thelonious] Monk is another example. I also like musicians like Monk whose playing is totally intertwined with his tunes, his writing. I mean, they’re almost indistinguishable. That appeals to me. And I’ve used that kind of concept in my own writing. I really write from the vantage point of the bass, and then I try to incorporate the things that I like to do on bass into the tunes. I mean, really, that was my first inspiration for writing — period — was to create situations for myself musically that I sounded good in.
Do you write from the bass?
Yeah, most of the time.
Or do you use piano yourself, or harmonies, or…?
Early on, years ago, I did, and then I specifically avoided it for a long time. Starting in about the mid-nineties I sold my piano and decided I wasn’t going to use it anymore. Not that I’m not a fan of harmony, I guess I just felt, stylistically, I didn’t want to bog them down with too much information in the middle range there.
I also have the great fortune of playing with some musicians who are masters of harmony, so they often would fill in the blanks, and I like leaving a lot of room in the middle for them to do that. If you look at my charts, they’re usually bass notes and melodies — almost like figured bass, in a way — and I don’t provide a lot of harmonic information. I often think of it as being implied by what’s going on on either side. And, you know, that’s just my approach. I guess, as a bass player, I’m a real counterpoint person: I’m really thinking about things more in a linear way.
And everybody’s got a different approach. For pianists, so much of it is about harmony, ’cause that’s what their instrument does; it’s just a great harmonic instrument. . . . Once I’d gone through studying harmony and really trying to absorb as much as I can and really getting into it, once I did that, and felt like I’d gotten as far as I wanted to get with that, I really wanted to push away from it and see what else could happen. With my group Medicine Wheel, my whole idea was to start from the vantage point of texture. I would really think of a particular texture or timbre, and that sound would be the very first idea I had for the tune, so that…
Can you give me an example of that?
Well, on my first Medicine Wheel record, a tune called “Blabbermouth”: the solo section starts with the pianist plucking the strings of the piano and the trumpet player playing plunger trumpet into the piano, so the pianist would hold the [sustain] pedal down and it would give this very reverberant effect and kind of creepy and strange. And that was the first sound that I thought of, so I’m, like, “Alright, I want to write a tune around that, that really features that sound.” So, by the time you get to that in the tune, you’re already two minutes into the tune, and people may not recognize the fact that that was the impetus for it, but when I did that it started a thought process.
For instance, on that particular tune I started with that idea and then I thought, “Well, that was a spacey, atmospheric kind of sound. What can I do to ground it? Well, let me add some kind of funky bass-line or something that will really ground it rhythmically.” And I had this bass-line that I’d been working on that I just had in my little scrapbook, so I pulled that out. “Alright, the bass-line’s really just a C-dominant sound; it doesn’t really go anywhere. What can I do to add some angularity?” So I wrote a really angular melody. It was adding layers and adding layers and kind of trying to counteract the previous layer and adding some kind of form to it.
And it was somewhat intellectual in that way, in that I was thinking, “What can I do to offset this?” It was a lot of problem-solving. So then I had this funky bass-line and an angular melody and this thing that I was going to get to: “Alright, now I need something to offset that,” so I wrote a bridge which is totally different. And, you know, a lot of it is taking all the fragments that I have, the little pieces that I’ve been working on, and have documented on paper or on tape, and assembling them. And once I have all these pieces it’s seems to blossom. It just becomes — for that stage — it’s somewhat intellectual.
Then once that’s in some kind of a shape, then you really have to look at it again and really apply your aesthetics — we were talking about aesthetics before — really making sure this doesn’t sound like crap. And that’s [laughs] the most important part!
I think some of my favorite composers are inspirational in that way. The first one that comes to mind is Alban Berg, whose music I studied a little bit after the early nineties. He was, of course, a proponent of the twelve-tone school, a student of Schoenberg’s, and they were really using these kind of intellectual approaches to come up with musical ideas — coming up with modes, and then shifting them upside-down, turning them backwards, and matrices. . . . It got very intellectual. But, in the process, the thing that separated his music out, for me, maybe more than some of the other composers out of that school, was that he would take that material and then apply a really beautiful sense of aesthetics to it. So he wouldn’t let that be the end; it would be more the means-to-an-end. In other words, he would take those various strange techniques and come up with musical fragments that might be pretty weird, but then he would apply his romantic sensibility to it — I know he was a big fan of Brahms — and he would take those fragments and make them sound really beautiful and really great, at least to my ears. And I just thought these he struck a really great balance between heart and mind, and I learned a lot from him.
So if you’re composing, there’s an element of conscious effort — you’re working with an idea or material. Do you have a point, too, where you work it out, you play it, and you just feel it? And then step back from that? You know, I would say I probably work in the opposite direction: I might try to get into a zone first. In writing, for instance, you just let it out, let it flow, ’cause if you’re sitting there trying to think everything through, sometimes you can’t get the idea out. And then you go back and put your ideas on the table — “Okay, is that working?” — almost more calculatedly. You see what I’m saying?
There’s absolutely a back-and-forth. That’s where the fragments come in, the fragments I mentioned that I use. I started this description in my classes as Step Two — or Step Three, actually. The first step is, as you say, really letting it go, just letting your mind wander. I mean, so much of the musical fragments that I have in my scrapbook come from either things that happened spontaneously on the bandstand that I try to remember or ask musicians in my group to remember. Or, more often than not, just getting together with guys with a tape deck or whatever — these days it’s my laptop — and recording a free session. We just get together, turn the lights off, and play, and mess around for a couple of hours. “What are you working on?” “Oh, check this out: bluh-bluh-bleh!” and we’ll just mess around, you know, and just come up with little ideas. And if I’m getting together with a drummer, and we’re playing for three hours, there might be two really cool grooves in there that I want to build off of — just two bars, four bars worth of stuff that I’m really going to take and say, “Alright, this is the jumping-off point.”
So I’ve got something somewhat specific that maybe the next guy doesn’t have that’s a really great musical idea. Now, what do you do with it? And the reason that, I think, is good, and works for me is, number one: it really capitalizes on the special things that musicians I know do — you know, really unique things that they come up with. And therefore I consider them such an integral part of the writing process, because I really want to play with all these guys for a reason: they’re all very very creative, individual musicians with a composerly mind-set who have original voices on their instruments, who have been working to get something personal together for a long time. And that shows. I want to capitalize on that; I want to use that; I want to incorporate that into the tune. And that really helps to define the band sound. So those are the two most important parts of that.
The second one is playing with people and hearing their ideas and their personality?
Yeah, or also just working out stuff on my own, where I’ll play the bass and sing along with it, or just sing a little idea in the tape machine, or just sit down and play a bunch of ideas, then record it all. It doesn’t have to be with another musician. And sometimes it is. A lot of times it isn’t; a lot of times it’s me sitting at the guitar. This new group I have [Man Sized Safe] features Steve Cardenas on guitar and the guitar features heavily into the sound. I wrote quite a bit of the last two albums on guitar, at least some of the ideas were written on guitar. And I use Pro Tools a lot when I’m writing…
Oh, ok, like, set up grooves or…?
Right, set up ideas, recording little ideas on tape and kind of layering them up. Some guys use sequencing software. I always felt that to be kind of cold; I prefer to compose to the real sounds, if I can. But I do like the idea of having that instant feedback, being able to hear how things fit together a little bit before I put them into that shape. And then, Step Three is to…
Step Two was to work with the ideas, see what you have?
Yeah, and try to do that kind of intellectual process of assembling them into some kind of form. [Step] Three is bringing them into the guys, bringing them into the session, or putting them out there on a gig and seeing what it really sounds like, and then also having them weigh in on it. The guys often have great ideas. Like on the Cowboy Justice record, for instance, we did “Blabbermouth” — that’s the tune I mentioned at the beginning of this interview that we recorded on the first album — we decided to re-do it and I really wanted to give it a totally different treatment, and Ron Horton had the great idea, right off the bat, of starting with the bridge, what used to be the middle of the tune, making that the beginning of the tune and kind of flipping the sections. And it’s such a simple idea, but it totally changed how I thought about it and I ended up writing a whole new section for the bridge and having it start in a different way. A great idea, and it set up this whole train of thought.
So I call that the “workshop” section in deference to [Charles] Mingus, who was my whole school. So, bringing it in, workshopping it, letting the band flesh it out. Somebody’ll say, “Yeah, you know, I’m not really feeling this.” Where I thought someone would have a great time soloing, they’re, like, “Yeah, I don’t really feel this. This isn’t really me.” And another person will say, “You know, I want to sink my teeth into this!” “Great! Okay, so that’s going to be…” We’ve talked about things like that.
Like a feature for that person?
I think so; I mean, I don’t often have more than one soloist on a tune. Sometimes I do; sometimes I write little ditties, just the tune, and when we get to the set, where anybody can solo on it any night, or maybe I’ll have everybody solo tonight if we just want to stretch it out into some massive jam. It depends on the gig. You know there’re different settings we play in, in rock clubs, and we play in opera houses, and we play at festivals where it’s, like, fifty-five minutes and the red light goes on and you’ve got to get off the stage. So you have to have a band that can turn on a dime and be able to play in any situation.
Do you change your material for those different situations?
No, but we change how we play them.
Well, like what I was just mentioning. Depending on the length we have, how tight we’ll play the tune, how much we stretch it out, the order. Also our approach to an individual tune might change a little bit.
Does it change with the audience? Like, if it’s a “rock crowd” are you going to go for more grooves?
It’s not going for more grooves. It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. So we will change how we play to fit the room. You’re always reacting to the audience, but I rarely go into a setting thinking, “Hm, this audience seems like this, maybe we should play like this.” I’m more often of the mind of, “This is what we do. Let’s try to pull them along into our scene.” And I’m always amazed at how, if the music’s good and it feels good, no matter where you are, people react favorably. However, we will change things quite drastically depending on the acoustics. That has a big impact on how we blend because some rooms are really dry, some rooms are very reverberant, some rooms we’re playing almost totally acoustically, some places we’re [going] through some massive sound system, and that impacts how you play. This isn’t pop music; it doesn’t sound the same in every setting; every night’s different. And I actually enjoy that immensely and I take a certain amount of pride in being able to work in almost any kind of room, have the music work in any setting. That’s the mark of a group that’s been playing for awhile.
As far as reaching your listeners, you’ve said already that, “I do what I do and try to make it engaging.” I’m just curious about your appeal, because you definitely have some call-backs to the tradition of swing and all this stuff, but there’re also a lot of contemporary aspects to your music. It’s crossover, in a way. I mean, I wouldn’t call you a mainstream player, but there are elements of rock and street culture and things like that. Is that something that you’re just messing around with, or is it something that you hope will bring people who may not get into the more esoteric aspects of extended improvisation and atonality?
Well, it’s funny, because I think we’re still talking about atonality as being the vanguard of the music, where in the jazz world a lot of that happened before I was born. I mean, that happened in the late fifties, early sixties; certainly by the late sixties that was well investigated. I mean, I was four at that time. So, that to me is classic jazz; I don’t really see that as being the vanguard of the music.
Also, the rock references—you know, I’m a big fan of classic rock, so that’s music from the sixties and seventies [laughs]. It’s forty years old! And I think, that being said, I don’t write with the idea of necessarily trying to attract new audiences. I mean, I do, of course, want to broaden my audience all the time. We do that mostly by touring and getting our music played on the radio and all the things that we do to get people aware of the music. I’m very gratified, though, by the kind of audiences that come out and do it. I mean, we were at the Green Mill jazz club a couple weeks ago in Chicago and the demographic was about as wide as you can get. That’s also a testament to that club and the vibe that they put out. It’s a great club. We [recently] toured around for a little while and we always try to play there when we get to Chicago, if we can. The people that are reacting to it are really from every conceivable background in terms of age and gender and race. And I guess because my music incorporates so many of the things that I like, and so many of the things that I like are all over the map [laughs], there’s hopefully something there that almost anybody can get to.
But I think, overall, what I hope people react to is, first of all — I hope this comes across — the sense of joy that we feel when we’re playing, when the band is in-sync musically. I don’t mean, necessarily, tight rhythmically; I mean in-sync musically, where we’re really trading ideas, where we feel that sense of spontaneity, but also an interplay that’s working, that’s like a really great conversation, where there’s a lot of give-and-take and somebody’s throwing out an idea and then someone else in the band reacts to it almost instantly and you can hear that happening in real time. It’s very exciting. And I think people react to my music when — even if they don’t necessarily know that’s what’s happening, on an intellectual level — you feel that; you feel that when that’s happening; you feel the energy. When you see music live it’s different than hearing it on a CD. And I think that’s what most people react to when they hear this music.
You know — you’re a music writer and a fan and a listener, and I’m a big fan of the music, a listener and a player — we sometimes get almost sidetracked our knowledge. I mean, I know, for myself, I sometimes fall into a trap of analyzing a piece of music while listening to it [laughs], you know? Which is kind of stupid. I sometimes wish I didn’t know anything about it and could experience it just like so many of the people in the audiences that we play for experience it — just as it is. You know, they don’t really understand the mechanics of the whole tune, nor should they; they should just feel it for what it is. And that’s really my favorite kind of audience member — somebody who really doesn’t know that much about jazz and hasn’t heard it a lot, certainly the kind of music we do, because then you’re really playing for people who are just experiencing it in the way that I hope people will.
Yeah. I think that’s a challenge for jazz because, you know, when it was coming up there were a lot of common references that people could grab on to, like the tunes — everybody knew the tunes.
Right, everybody knew George Gershwin, everybody knew the Broadway tunes, everybody knew the popular music of the day.
Right. And there’re newer artists coming along that are trying to use the popular music of the day. I’m thinking of Josh Redman’s James Brown cover [“I Got You (I Feel Good)” from Joshua Redman] or something like that. Or, they’re trying to bring in more pop music; you have all these “smooth jazz” artists that are bringing in rock and pop and r&b references…
Yeah, very recognizable pop tunes.
Yeah, and then putting the jazz element of the creativity or the open-endedness within that. And I think that’s a challenge for artists that are trying to be really original. How can you be simultaneously original and have enough references and enough familiarity to make people feel comfortable with your exploration?
That’s interesting. For me, it’s very very hard, but it’s something I take very seriously; that’s probably what I work on more than anything.
Because, for instance, with very avant-garde music, you lose a lot of people very quickly by challenging them that much. You’re asking a lot of patience from your listener. But I think you can combine both of those things.
You can challenge them, and make them comfortable, if that makes sense?
It’s absolutely true, and that’s where the aesthetics come in to play. Aesthetics — it’s hard to quantify; you can’t really quantify it, but, for sure, something has aesthetic appeal if it feels in some way relevant to people. And the music that we all have in common — this is why I’m a big fan of television music, by the way, and that music factors largely into my sound, because I’m a product of the TV generation. I mean, I came up really, in my opinion, at the height of television music. The sixties and seventies was when guys were writing incredible music for television, whether or not you noticed that. Some of these hour-long shows would have full scores, totally programmatic, scored out to the smallest movement, and themes that people may not have consciously assimilated but are in the back of their minds. You know, Star Trek and Little House on the Prairie and all the cop shows, all the cop dramas—[in] all of that stuff, there’s a lot of incidental music that went on, underscoring it, and those sounds have seeped into our collective unconscious and they’re there. So as a jazz musician I’m tapping things like that.
Programmatic, yeah. By that I mean music that really follows the scene. So for a score that would mean the timing of how the video was cut influences how the music is cut. And classic programmatic music would be, like, Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev, where each animal’s got its own theme, and when that animal shows up in the story you hear that theme. And in Star Trek every time there’s a fight sequence you get: dahn dahn dahn dunt-dunt dah daah! You know, that’s the fight music, and every time Kirk is fighting that’s the theme you’re going to get, and you recognize it as that, and that’s there. And I guess sometimes people remark that my music has some kind of film-like quality and I’m actually happy when they say that because I do—I’m not telling stories in my mind as I’m writing it, but I’m referencing a lot of that kind of music that’s sectional—each section has a point, it’s got a real character to it, you know?
Yeah, that was my next question: is there an image for each part. Duke [Ellington] did that a lot in his music. He would tell them a color or he would have a description, and then say, “Just play. You interpret it, but I have a very specific idea.”
Yeah, no doubt. I think the best description for me is, as a composer, I’m trying to create a landscape that the musicians are then free to explore. So, in an abstract way — another way of saying that is — you’re setting up a mood, a tone, a color, a timbre, whatever you want to call it, that the improvisers are — should — be aware of, and should be conscious of. But then they’re free to play off of that and manipulate it and explore it and change it and react to it in whatever way they see fit. But the point is that the vibe is there.