October 11, 2004
Palmetto Records PM 2100
BEN ALLISON & MEDICINE WHEEL
Palmetto Records PM 2101
Affiliated neither with the backwards-gazing Young Lions nor with the try- anything experimenters, New Yorks Jazz Composers Collective (JCC) gathers together a rotating cast of musicians and bands to perform and write distinctive contemporary pieces to advance jazz without imitating or rupturing its historic fabric.
Bassist Ben Allison and pianist Frank Kimbrough — who co-founded the JCC in 1992 and remain two of its composers-in-residence — refine that concept on these CDs. Problem is, sometimes when you stay in the middle of the road — even a musical one — youre apt to be run over from different directions.
Although more concise, Allisons disc fares better, with the greater number of colors available with Medicine Wheel, which besides he and the pianist consists of trombonist Clark Gayton, reedists Michael Blake and Ted Nash, plus the refined drumming of Michael Sarin.
Sarin, who has done similar quietly spectacular work for pianist Myra Melford among others, gives some of Allisons compositions the polyrhythmic oomph they lack. Kimbrough, who takes the piano chair in the JCCs Herbie Nichols Project, also has a first-rate drummer on board for his trio set. Matt Wilson has backed veterans like bassist Mario Pavone and is certainly proactive on LULLABLUEBYE. There are times, in fact, that it seems like a duo session, with Allison barely present.
This is particularly obvious on Ode, Kimbroughs moderato-paced tribute to pianist Andrew Hill. Accentuating different chordal patterns with his bass drum accents and cymbal resonation, Wilson breaks up the time making the pianists playing seem excessively formal.
Percussion inventiveness is on display on John Barrys You Only Live Twice and Whirl. The former is an inoffensive, foot-tapping run-through of the James Bond film theme. The later finds Wilson moving from paradiddles and nerve beats to New Thing-style door knocking and rim shots. Coupled with harder tremolos from Kimbrough, it surrounds one of the few extended bass solos on the CD, with Allison ranging his way up to the pegs and down to the bridge. Thematic resolution replicates the beginning with a little more freedom.
Things pick up a bit with Kid Stuff and Bens Tune. Stuff finds Wilsons tick-tocking cymbal raps, rebounds and ratamacues accompanying a bit of Baroque-like invention on Kimbroughs part, albeit a section with pitchsliding and pointillism. Here though, the repeated note clusters bring early Chick Corea to mind. The other tune is unfussy, unfocussed and unpretentious and sounds like fun to play. It features arpeggio rolls and metronomic time keeping from the pianist, with light voicing that sometimes makes it seem that hes about to launch into Ferry Cross The Mersey. Despite its title as well, Allisons solo is unspectacularly low-key.
The bassman is more assertive on his own CD, but at least that doesnt translate into a string of bass solos. Instead he integrates within the more aggressive sounds of the horns and drummer Sarin.
You can see the freedom he gains when you compare tuns such as R&B Fantasy and Green Al. The first isnt related to the common definition of R&B, ending up as more like a classically styled fantasia with contrapuntal parts for nearly everyone. Sarins press rolls and brush-driven cymbal pressure holds the beat, thats prevented from becoming too overpowering by modulated, moderated and meshed saxophone and piano lines. Improvising like a more modern, lilting Stan Getz, Blake, on tenor, puts not a note out of place until the very end when he introduces some mannerly squeals and flutter tonguing. Kimbrough comps politely behind him until the other horns enter and take out the piece, with the pianist reprising the rondo-like beginning.
Perhaps the title of Green Al is supposed to in a backwards way suggest the Memphis-based gospel-soul singer of the same name in reverse, and it certainly has a slinky, bass-driven call-and-response beat. Sarin on hand-beaten snares and with cymbals scratches would never be confused with the MGs Al Jackson, however. And while Blake brings some impressive double tonguing and slurred upper partials to his funk-tinged tenor solo, the unsweaty way he approaches it distinguish him from the Memphis horns.
Sarins skills are again showcased on the nearly eight-minute title tune. Manipulating his percussion set so at various times it appears as if hes playing djembe hand drums, congas and unattached cymbals, he meets slide pecks from Gayton and stratospheric runs from Nash on tenor. Far more than on his own CD, Kimbrough asserts himself, creating high frequency boogie licks as well as squeezing a handful of keys into a tremolo countermelody. By the end, the horn fills have turned to a constant vamp.
After Sarin, its Blake who emerges as the most consistent soloist, with a tone that ranges from wide and fruity to delineated and free. His Asiatic and Latinesque Mauritania provides a showcase from Nashs crisp flute tones and growling plunger work from Gayton.
Everyones playing appears to need firming up however on Erato, a transcription of a 1960s tune by pianist Hill, who was also celebrated with Ode on Kimbroughs CD. Here the floating romantic line becomes too smooth under the double counterpoint of Nashs breathy tenor and a stolid bass line. The placid piano chords dont help either.
Both Allison and Kimbrough, plus their JCC associates, are well on their way to establish unique identities. But on the evidence of these CDs, tougher-minded improvising and arrangements must be added to more advanced compositional and conceptional facilities for this to occur.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listings: Lullabluebye: 1. Lullabluebye 2. Centering 3. Kid Stuff 4. Ode 5. Whirl 6. Ghost Dance 7. You Only Live Twice 8. FuBu 9. Bens Tune 10. Eventualities
Personnel: Lullabluebye: Frank Kimbrough (piano); Ben Allison (bass); Matt Wilson (drums)
Track Listing: Buzz: 1. Respiration 2. Buzz 3. Green Al 4. Mauritania 5. Erato 6. R&B Fantasy 7. Across The Universe
Personnel: Buzz: Clark Gayton (trombone and bass trombone); Michael Blake (soprano and tenor saxophones); Ted Nash (flute and tenor saxophone); Frank Kimbrough (piano, prepared piano, Wurlitzer piano); Ben Allison (bass); Michael Sarin (drums)