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Think Free by Ben Allison

One way to perpetuate an important tradition is to concentrate on the way it was back-when and strive to keep it like it was (an idealized golden age), another is to build on the achievements of the past in contemporary ways. Less cryptically, the jazz greats of the past heard the music of their time(s) and worked what they heard into a singular approach. The bop era built upon Swing Era standards, popular Broadway melodies, and 20th century classical music. The soul-jazz era built upon bebop with an accent on blues and gospel (giving birth to one variant of funk), and so forth. There are new breeds of jazz players that are not limited to any narrow view of the jazz tradition they didn’t grow up with a set of tunes spanning the 1930s to the late ‘50s, they heard rock & roll, folk, funk, fusion, pop tunes of the 1960s-90s, whatever, and worked those influences into their approach to jazz.

I’ll come off my soapbox/podium now and talk about Ben Allison and his terrific combo Man Size Safe. This lot doesn’t take to labels easily Allison’s approach has aspects of fusion, but it’s not "fusion" as most of the collective We think of it. (In some ways it’s closer to the acoustic fusions of Oregon, David Grisman, and Bela Fleck.) There are aspects of bop and post-bop but they do not sound as if the "definition" of jazz was/is Blue Note/Prestige era circa 1956-1967. Allison sounds like he grew up with various styles and phases of rock and folk and works melodies and song forms into an improvisational context. There are no re-worked chord changes from standards Allison’s melodic content carries echoes of Radiohead, Bacharach/David, Sergio Mendes & Brazil 66, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Carly Simon,‘70s R&B, Carole King, movie soundtracks (that John Barry fellow always had a way with a captivating melody!), and more. Further, Allison & MSS recall the chamber jazz of the 1970s and ‘80s glory days of ECM (Burton, Metheny, E. Weber) stinging electric guitar, stately elegiac violin, and lyrical, yearningly lovely trumpet lines intertwine with each other, making compact, harmonious, and wiry statements. Allison’s bass is warm and bittersweet, and he directs the music in a subtle and inclusive manner recalling Charlie Haden. Steve Cardenas is especially a joy he can summon up recollections Mahavishnu-era John McLaughlin and John Abercrombie, but also Jimmy Page, Bob Weir, and the more folk-like side of Pat Metheny. Jenny Scheinman’s elegant, sly, full-bodied violin evokes shades of Stephane Grappelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, and bluegrass/country/occasional jazz wizard Vassar Clements. There are sterling solos but more importantly Allison’s lot play like a true ENSEMBLE, a band, not just a bunch of hep players. Solos are joyfully concise, no water-treading here.

Oh, there are lots of great jazz players around, but Allison & Man Size Safe sound like they’re apart and away from most of the rest, like (as we hepcats said in the day) they got their own bag. Listen to him/them (and they are OUTSTANDING live)!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ben Allison
  • CD Title: Think Free
  • Genre: Folk Jazz
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: Palmetto
  • Musicians: Ben Allison (acoustic bass), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Steve Cardenas (electric guitar), Shane Endsley (trumpet), Rudy Royston (drums).
  • Rating: Five Stars
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