An Interview with Ben Allison

Fred Jung Interviews
Ben Allison

I am always humbled by the courage of musicians in our music. The sheer amount of energy they put into practicing and mastering their respective instruments has me in awe on most days. So it is always a personal honor for me to be a spectator as they fight valiantly in their arena. The words Robert Kennedy shared, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly,” come to mind. Ben Allison is one of many musicians that fit this description to a tee. From his home in New York, we spoke of his band Medicine Wheel, the Jazz Composers Collective, an organization that he helped found, and his new Palmetto record, as always, unedited and in his own words.

JazzUSA: Let’s start from the beginning. When did you first begin to take music seriously?

BA: In high school. I started on guitar and conga drums, actually, is mostly what I played in high school. Got into jazz because I was looking for something a little different, I actually was searching for some different sounds. Hadn’t been exposed to much as a kid. I was raised mostly on European classical music and folk music. Mostly folk music, actually. That’s what my parents listened to. Then I took up the bass in, I guess it was my senior year. Played in mostly salsa bands around New Haven, because that’s pretty much was happening. That’s where I grew up, in New Haven. Then I came to New York, NYU. Studied there with a lot of different people. I think that my main inspiration probably comes from my mom, who was an amateur singer. She sang renaissance music, mostly, some late Gregorian chant-style stuff and early Renaissance.

JazzUSA: As an educator, what is the most important lesson for a young student to grasp?

BA: There are a couple of things that I usually stress. First of all, I feel like, a lot of times, especially in the jazz education tradition, they’re trying to, in education, what they do is, they try to compartmentalize groups of knowledge and break them down into little packets that. When you start to make jazz into an academic art form, you run the risk of losing its vitality. So, I think sometimes, musician students get far away from the basic concepts of musicality. In other words, they get too concerned with specifics about what note to play with what scale, and all this kind of stuff. One of the things that I deal with is getting back to the fundamental musical concepts that you can apply to any particular style that students would understand. A more basic thing is, the most important thing to do as a musician, I think, is to find your individual voice. And if you look at the greatest, the great musical pioneers, some of the things that made them great were their ability to take their influences and disguise them. In other words, somehow obscuring the path. I mean, everybody has people that have influenced them. And they, to a certain extent, copy the work of their idols. And I think the key in coming up with an original sound is to somehow obscure those influences, make a particular mixture that doesn’t sound derivative. You know what I mean? I mean, I think that’s the big difference between musicians that are, what we call traditionalists, and musicians that are forward thinking, or non-traditionalist. And that is that the non-traditionalists just cover their tracks better.

We’ve all listened to a lot of different types of music, we’re all influenced by a lot of different types of music, and not to get to Biblical, but there’s nothing new under the sun. In that respect, it just comes down to someone’s individual way of putting together all those pieces. Taking what’s inspired them and coming up with something that has a particular flavor that is only theirs. So that’s like the road that a lot of musicians have to travel down, in making marks for themselves, finding their individual voice. And being conscious of that, I think it’s important. That’s where kind of I’m coming out of, and that’s what I try to work on. In the process of learning jazz, there’s a huge tradition there. There’s a huge lexicon, a huge bunch of information that you have to know. You don’t really have to know everything, but in other words, you’re force fed a lot of stuff, and you’re told who’s the great guy to listen to, and you go to transcribe this solo, and you got to transcribe this solo, and that’s part of the process. But, often lost in the process is, how are you not going to sound like that? How are you not going to sound like Coltrane when you graduated from college? You know? You’re not going to sound like him, but how are you not going to sound like you’re trying to sound like him? So, those are the two biggest things I focus on.

JazzUSA: Do you find that young musicians are not doing that?

BA: Well, I came up in the eighties, when the New York traditionalist movement was in full swing. By that I mean, people were trying to not only recapture a certain flavor of classic jazz, but trying to almost define what jazz was. The word had gotten so broad in its definition. You had anything from Jeff Lorber and Miles was kind of one of the people that started this, but the whole idea of fusion and branching off into other things. And the word became so broad, the definition became so broad that I think there was a backlash where people tried to define it. Spearheaded by institutions. Jazz education, Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center, things like that. Whether he admits that or not, I think that that’s a part of what went down in the eighties. So a lot of the stuff that I and my contemporaries were reacting to was that. And lost in that was the idea, was the original intent, in my opinion, of a lot of the jazz musicians they were emulating. And that was to really develop individual sounds. In order to do that, you have to be constantly expanding the language. And that, to me, right there is the definition of jazz. More so than, even than the lexicon, even than the things people actually played. I think it has more to do with an evolution than a particular period in time, the spirit of that. That’s another thing that I try to instill in students and myself on a daily basis, is that spirit of adventure, discovery. And one of the best ways to get to that is to find like-minded musicians and play with them. That’s one of the inspirations behind the Collective.

JazzUSA: Let’s talk about the Jazz Composers Collective.

BA: The Jazz Composers Collective is a musician run, non-profit organization that’s dedicated towards presenting original music by forward thinking composers. We have an annual concert series that we present and a newsletter that we publish and a web site that we maintain.

JazzUSA: And the web site address?

BA: www.jazzcollective.com It’s basically a, well, there’s a bunch of reasons why we started it. I think as I was saying before, I was feeling a little disillusioned with the scene in the eighties. I was feeling a little disconnected with the industry, quote, unquote. In other words, with what we were hearing on the radio, what we were hearing that was being produced on records and CD, what we were hearing in clubs. We felt a little disconnected. A lot of the music we were writing at that point, we didn’t feel worked in clubs for example. We were writing music with extreme dynamic range and that doesn’t work in a lot of jazz club settings. And just this feeling that we were a little disconnected and rather than gripe and moan about it, which is what I did for the first few years that I got out of school, was to take that energy and direct it, and to really just create a framework for us to direct our energy in, and that’s what the Collective became. It is what we make it, so whatever project we want to do, we have a framework in which to do it.

Whatever kind of music we come up with, and people like to pigeonhole you and should, but the beauty of the collective is that hopefully, we can create our own pigeonhole. We can create our own hole and define what it is. It’s just a name that we call ourselves on occasion to describe what we’re doing. A lot of musicians are involved. We’ve probably presented over seventy concerts since our formation in ninety-two, and premi√®red over three hundred compositions. There been, probably, a hundred and twenty-five plus musicians involved and close to forty composers. It’s really grown to be a New York creative arena. We’re currently in residence at the New School, so we do our concerts there. It’s basically what it’s come down to. Now, we all have, I mean, there’s five composers in residence, what we call composers in residence. They’re just central figures that help to define what the Collective is, in terms of the Board and the officers of the corporation. Each concert is dedicated to one of the composers in residence. We keep a core group of guys developing projects over the long term, and each concert has someone who has never done a concert with us before. We’re constantly broadening it and inviting new people into the fold.

JazzUSA: Does New York have a distinctive sound?

BA: Well, I don’t know that there is a New York sound. There’s certainly sounds that I would associate with New York. Some of my contemporaries are, kind of, seem to be feeding off of each other’s energy. Michael Blake, Steven Bernstein in Sex Mob, Matt Wilson, these guys, we kind of have a similar approach. We share a lot of things in common, in terms of our sensibilities. That’s one, kind of, New York school, if you want to call it. There’s other ones to. There’s obviously a large klezmer-type downtown scene or whatever. There’s a lot of other scenes too. I don’t know too much about the Chicago music scene. The only thing that I have had more exposure to is European musicians. We go over there and play a lot. I would say that there’s a certain European sound. This is a very broad generalization, of course. There’s a certain thing about Europe, in my opinion, they tend less, in general, of course, they tend to be less groove oriented. They have a certain, what I hear to be, kind of, reminiscent of a nineteen sixties avant-garde sound. That’s something that goes over real well there. When you play like that people flip. Whereas in New York, if I heard that music, it would seem nostalgic. There they feel like it’s cutting edge. Here, to me something very modern would be somebody playing a free-form groove oriented version of a Carpenters tune. That would have a modern feel to me, by taking music that you would never associate with jazz and doing things like that with it, and certain kinds of techniques we do, like needle-drop techniques, where we suddenly change into a completely different texture, working with a lot of different textures that have recognizable sounds. You can’t put your finger on exactly what it is, but there’s something organic about it. I don’t know how to describe too much of what we’re doing, but that’s some of the things that we’re trying to approach. I don’t hear that in Europe. I hear a more, what to me, feels like a traditional avant-garde sound. Avant-garde music is close to, it’s thirty-five years old, or older. A lot of that stuff was before I was born, so it’s old style music. I hear that a lot in Europe. It’s still very popular.

JazzUSA: What fostered your interest in the music of Herbie Nichols?

BA: Well, Frank Kimbrough, one of the composers in the Collective, a great pianist and composer, introduced to his music for the first time, probably about six years ago, towards the beginning of the Collective’s run. I was immediately intrigued by the music because it has a quirkiness and a really individual, original sound that I hadn’t heard in a lot of other composers of his period. He really only made a few records and at that time, they were all out of print. The only thing that I had ever heard was the flip side to this Thelonious Monk record. It’s actually a record, I believe, it’s by a bass player, but in the eighties, it’s on Savoy, they had credited it to Herbie, because I guess he’s the only one on that session who is at all famous. For some reason, they credited the session to Herbie. It was cheesy music and so I never really thought much about him. Kimbrough brought in some tunes that he had transcribed and it flipped me out. It was just great, great stuff. It just became, kind of, the more I got into it, the more I realized what a wealth of material there was there. Kimbrough was way into it at the time and between the two of us and one of the founding members of the Collective, who has since moved out West, we started transcribing all of his music. The more we transcribed, the more we were amazed at the depth and originality of what he had left. It felt as the Collective was defining itself.

One of the things that we were concerned with is the idea of presenting original, new music as being one of our missions, defining character. Herbie’s music, to do a concert of his music seemed a little strange, but at the same time, the music was undiscovered, so to me, it felt new. I had never heard it before. Most of the people that I knew had heard of him but had never heard his music before. It had that feeling of being new music. We, certainly, were immersing ourselves in it to the point where we felt like we could bring something new to it. For instance, all of his recording were made in a trio context and when we started flushing it out, flushing them out with horns, a lot of the hidden character of the tunes started to emerge. So that was the first step and since then we’ve undergone many and really done a lot more with it. It was that thrill of discovery, of finding somebody new and a bunch of material that was interesting and struck a chord, no pun intended, with all of us.

JazzUSA: Let’s touch on your group collaboration, Medicine Wheel.

BA: There’s a core group of musicians, a quintet. That’s the original concept of the group, which actually doesn’t include Frank. It’s Ted Nash on saxophones, Michael Blake on saxophones, Tomas Ulrich on cello, and at that time, it was Jeff Ballard on drums and myself on bass. The first record I did with that group, which was self-titled, “Medicine Wheel,” used Frank on a couple of tunes, Ron Horton, the trumpeter on a couple of tunes, but the main focus of the thing was supposed to be the quintet that I mentioned before. It’s been broadened and shortened and I currently play with a trio version of the group. It is logistically easier to move around. We play every week at this club done in the East Village. The music itself came from, originally was something that I was commission to write through the Collective from an organization called the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust. They’re a great organization in New York that funds non-profits and we’ve gotten great support for them over the years. The basic premise for me, well, I used it as a chance, as an excuse to do some things that I’ve always wanted to do but never felt comfortable doing. They’d give me some money so I could clear my calendar and sit down and try some wacky stuff. One of the ideas was to take sounds that are traditionally associated with totally out, avant-garde music or twentieth century classical music, like prepared piano and multi-phonics on saxophones and prepared bass and put them in a context of tunes that were in some way accessible, quirky, yet accessible.

By that, I mean, melodies that, hopefully, are evocative and maybe you can remember or think you can remember. I’m really intrigued by composers who can write very simple, but beautiful melodies, Neil Young and Paul McCartney, these guys can write melodies that, when you analyze them are extremely simple, but somehow, there’s something about them, for lack of a better word, are catchy. It’s something that I felt a little bit about jazz through the years, is sometimes it can be a little esoteric and complex. I saw a lot of musicians who were creating sounds that, in my opinion, were needlessly complex. They were trying to, what they thought they were doing was adding interest to a tune by making it more complex. In my opinion, that’s not what happens when you make something more complex. It’s just becomes more complex. It doesn’t become more interesting. I like the idea of creating melodies and working with those grooves. I love grooves. I love interesting rhythms and putting it all together, and yet having that flavor of extended techniques for instruments. That was roughly the concept in my mind when I started writing for the band and started creating the idea, having the cello adds a certain orchestral element to it. Having it be non-chordal with no piano, added a certain bow to the avant-garde set, the avant-garde, Ornette type of thing, no piano, no chordal instruments, working in three part harmony or four part. Jeff Ballard was instrumental in that. He’s an extremely creative musician and a lot of the music came out of us just getting together and getting a little recording device and pressing record and just playing for four hours, all kinds of stuff, whatever we could think of. Then we came back to my house and picked out things that came up well and used them as nuggets to start from, little building blocks. That was the original part of the band. It was a suite entitled “Medicine Wheel” that turned into the band called Medicine Wheel. We premiered that music in ’95, at a Collective concert, and since then I’ve gotten another grant to record the work and that recording turned into the first Medicine Wheel record. Other grants turned into the music for the second Medicine Wheel album, which is “Third Eye.”

JazzUSA: Does utilizing grants help fund your music?

BA: Well, I don’t have to use grants to get my music out there, but it sure helps. It’s not difficult. It makes things much easier to have access to funding. There’s certain projects, for instance, as an example, Ted Nash recently completed a project he calls “The Double Quartet Plus One,” and that’s a standard jazz quartet, what we would call piano, bass, drums, and saxophone, he plays saxophone, and a string quartet, two violins, a viola, cello, plus one, which in this case is a vibraphone player/percussion player. He was commissioned to write this music and got a recording grant. We had every intention of recording it for a label, it’s just that with their funds, it augments the budget, to the point where we can go into the right studio. We can get the right engineer and really take it to another level sound-wise and production-wise. I design all of our CD covers, artwork and stuff like that on the computer. It’s something that I do on the side. The look of it was always cool. It was just making sure that the recording quality was up to snuff and that’s a lot of money. For new, for emerging artists like ourselves, there’s lots of opportunities to do things in a quick, low budget way, but I think that we all feel, at this point in our careers, that it’s important to, it’s not a question of volume, it’s a question of putting out records that hopefully have a certain amount of integrity and at least has been the result of hard work and forethought.

There’s something about a grant that coalesces the project in your mind because it relieves one of the major stumbling blocks. As I said before, if I get a commissioned grant, I just clear my calendar, for however long it takes, maybe it’s a month or two, I don’t even have to think about doing anything else. And maybe I do, maybe I don’t, but at least I don’t have to hunt down stuff or feel like I have to take a gig that I don’t want to take and expend energy in that direction. I can really focus and someone is waiting for something. There’s a Board of Directors over there and at the Collective and these foundations that are waiting for a project, and a final report, and a CD, and a financial statement, and everything like that. There’s nothing like having deadline. That’s really what the Collective is, is the framework, as I’ve said before, to organize, and to inspire, and to kind of kick your ass in gear. It’s been very beneficial to have that.

JazzUSA: Does the music that your play, lend well to a major label?

BA: I have no question. It’s not even about the music with a lot of major labels. They’re more concerned with marketability. If for some reason, as we prod away and we develop fan basis and if our music turned into the kind of thing where there’s a bunch of screaming Dead-Heads at our concerts, you better believe that Atlantic would be calling us. That’s not even the issue, they have David Ware, that’s not really it. It comes down to marketability. In my opinion, this funny to say, but I’m not really interested in larger labels. I love working with medium size labels, not labels that have no resources, but the beauty of Palmetto is that when I call their office, I talk to the president. We talk directly about what’s going on. I know exactly where my CD is being played on the radio. When I go into a town to do a gig, and I ask them to set up a radio interview, it’s set up. It’s very easy for somebody on a big label to be swept under the carpet and unless they’re in the top one percent of stars. I know a lot of guys that are contemporaries of mine, my same age, great musicians surely, but on larger labels. Their number one complaint is that they feel ignored. They feel disconnected.

The fact of the matter is, is jazz is a very small percentile of the market. We’re all quibbling about a really, really small amount of money in the big picture of things. What’s important to me is that jazz, I think a lot of music and hopefully some of the music that we’re doing now has the potential to reach a larger audience and the only way it’s going to do that with the sheer amount of music that’s being pumped out every day, way too much information and entertainment in this country and in the world. The only way anything’s going to emerge significantly is if musicians and labels really work together in a grassroots sort of way by enlisting fans one at a time. I think with a small label, you stand a much better chance of doing that. There’s the Diana Kralls and then there’s everybody else. For the rest of us, I feel like I’d rather have “A”, control over the rest of my career, and “B”, a certain sense of everybody working together towards a common goal like the Collective. I like being with the people at Palmetto. I would hate to be in a situation where I’m calling somebody at a label and they’re not even calling me back. I have so many friends that are on major labels and that’s exactly how they, they’re like, they got fifty thousand dollar budgets to do their records, but I’ll be sitting here and I’ll get a call from Palmetto, “We took out an ad here,” and my friends are like, “Wow, they do that kind of stuff for you?” I like the small stuff. I like keeping it personal.