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Feature Interview: Ben Allison

Discussion in 'Features' started by TalkBass, Mar 12, 2004.


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  1. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <table border="0" align="left">
    <tr><td><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/benallison/ben1.jpg" align="left">
    </td></tr>
    <tr><td>Photo by Jimmy Katz</td></tr></table>---Interview for TalkBass.com by Ed Fuqua---

    I first heard Ben Allison [<a href="http://www.benallison.com">www.benallison.com</a>] several years ago when a tenor player I was working with gave me a copy of the Medicine Wheel recording SEVEN ARROWS. It was a revelation, to say the least. Although I had worked (and continue to do so) with a few “free” jazz groups, I had never heard anything like Ben’s group – the intent of the compositions, the way the compositional elements and improvisational elements seemed to weave in and out of each other, the way the pieces grooved without the bassist laying down 4 on the floor, and the way these guys seemed to exist without ANY model that I could wrap my ears around. <br /><br>

    About a year later I had a chance to see Medicine Wheel in concert, and that was another revelation. Watching Ben’s approach to the instrument was unlike anybody else I had seen play. Here was a cat who didn’t seem to concern himself with getting around the instrument with a lot of flash, it was all about the Sound – of the instrument, of the ensemble. And the sound; still all-involving, mesmerising – you don’t go to hear these guys play solos (even though they are all great soloists), you go to hear the BAND, the compositions. Or I guess I should say that even if you do go to hear the soloists you rapidly get caught up in the play of the ensemble.<br />
    <br />
    I ran into Ben as I was leaving a rehearsal and he was heading into one at a Manhattan rehearsal studio a few weeks back, I asked him if he would mind answering a few questions for the folks at TalkBass and he kindly consented. So here you are….<br />
     
  2. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    E.F.: <b>In your bio you say you played a little electric bass in high school, when did you switch to upright? Did a particular teacher or player influence your decision?<br /></b>
    <br />
    B.A.:By the time I was a senior in high school, I had played guitar and drums for several years but felt that, if I was going to get to the next level, I should focus on one instrument or the other. I was listening to a lot of rock, reggae, and salsa but had not heard much acoustic bass (other than in a symphony orchestra or on old ska records). My band teacher, Bill Brown, turned me on to jazz and when I heard bassists like Charles Mingus and Ron Carter for the first time I realized the potential that this instrument had to produce the kind of sounds I wanted to make. It seemed to fuse most of what I liked about the <br />
    guitar and drums into one instrument.<br />
    <br />
    E.F.: <b>Your background seems to be similar to other, more straight ahead players (i.e., NYU with Steve LaSpina et al), how did you develop such a unique technical approach (playing above the bridge or with sticks on the strings, "prepared" bass etc.)?<br />
    <br /></b>
    B.A.: I studied at NYU with some great teachers, including Steve, Joe Lovano, and Jim McNeely. Stylistically, these guys were each quite different to my ears. But they all made the pursuit of individuality and a personal sound a priority and were more concerned with "how" to play than "what" to play. Ultimately, aesthetics are more important to me as a motivation to be creative than any feeling of allegiance to a particular camp, or responsibility to uphold a particular tradition. Individuality and change is a cornerstone of the jazz tradition. In some ways, the tradition of jazz is “atraditionalism.”<br />
    <br />
    E.F.: <b>With the growing public awareness of jazz orthodoxy through programs like Ken Burns' JAZZ, how important are organizations like yours to the developing jazz musician? To musicians in general?<br />
    <br /></b><a href="www.benallison.com"><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/benallison/ben3.jpg" border=0 align="left"></a>
    B.A.: Our organization, the Jazz Composers Collective, was put together not only as an attempt to take things into our own hands in terms of presenting music and create an idealized working environment, but also as a way to take a stand against what we saw as the increasing "institutionalization" of the jazz. Strange, in retrospect since the Collective is itself an institution of sorts. But the Collective was our take on what "jazz institution" should mean.<br />
    <br />
    There were certain aspects of organizations such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall that I found appealing. I liked the idea of jazz in a concert-like setting (although I've always enjoyed playing in clubs – well, almost always). And I liked the non-profit aspect, which allows you to work outside of the regular music channels to a certain extent. What I did not like was the idea that jazz could be defined and that that definition often seemed to leave out too much of what I considered to be vital music.<br />
    <br />
    The Collective was different in some key respects. First, our focus was on new works and original programming. We were all interested in building catalogs of original works and, in the process, defining our own styles and approaches to band leading. A large part of what makes music personal and new has to do with composition. Hence the word "composers" in our title. And we consider ourselves jazz musicians, so we used the word "jazz". As an aside, I don't believe anyone or any group can claim ownership of a word. The meaning of a word changes over time and is reflective of what's happening now. It's usually the product of how people use the word in everyday speech (which is why dictionaries constantly need to be updated)<br />
    <br />
    Second, we were sure we wanted our organization to be musician-run and cooperatively-run – a collective.<br />
    <br />

    E.F.:<b> Is the growth of the Jazz Composer's Collective a surprise? How has the organization handled its growth?<br />
    <br /></b>
    B.A.: One important decision I had to make early on was what size organization we should try to build. Were we going to be a $75,000 a year organization or a $250,000+ organization? I realized that keeping ourselves small was a good way to maintain control while also allowing us to do what we wanted to do. I did not like the idea of handing over the reigns to a hired executive director, but also knew that I did not have the slightest inclination to become an arts administrator. Our budget allowed us to present, record, and tour many projects, but never required too large a percentage of my time to maintain.<br />
    <br />
    E.F.: <b>You've been playing with Frank Kimbrough a long time, how important is it for you to have "like minded" musicians around? Which tends to be more important, the personal relationship or the musical relationship?<br />
    <br /></b>
    <table border="0" align="right">
    <tr><td><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/benallison/ben4.jpg" align="left">
    </td></tr>
    <tr><td>Ben Allsion and Frank Kimbrough; Photo by Ted Nash</td></tr></table>



    B.A.: I think to a certain extent it's hard to separate the personal from the musical in terms of relationships. Music is personal. At least I should say that I'm not interested in being involved with music that is not. Clifford Jordan once told me that he thought the best music comes when musicians dislike each other, that dislike breeds competition which brings out the best in a player. I could not disagree more. I think the best music comes from trust. And it's hard for me to trust someone I dislike.<br />
    <br />
    E.F.:<b> Do you maintain a practice routine? What kinds of things do you work on?</b><br />
    <br />
    B.A.: I'm not a big practicer. I probably should practice more, but when I'm at home I rarely listen to music and really don't enjoy playing alone that much. I'm most interested in working on my ability to play in a group and to find a groove, which are both impossible to do alone. When I'm in the swing of writing for an album or a particular project, however, I like to be home, near my instruments, TV, and CD/record and book collections.<br />
    <br />
    E.F.: <b>Is your approach to the instrument an outgrowth of your compositional approach?</b><br />
    <br />
    B.A.: Yes, very much so. For me, playing and composing are two sides of the same coin. I think many musicians would agree that improvising is a lot like spontaneously composing. And composing can be like improvising with a stop button. Maybe they are really the same thing, adjusted by time (whoa, I just blew my own mind).<br />
    <br />
    E.F.:<b>How do you integrate or balance your compositional ideas with those sections of the composition that are more open and freely improvised?<br />
    <br /></b>
    B.A.: Sometimes I like to blur the line between what is improvised and what is preconceived. For instance, I might have a very clear idea of how I'd like a soloist to approach the construction of their solo, but will leave the interpretation of the written section of a tune up to the spontaneous interpretation of the musicians.<br />
    <br /><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/benallison/ben5.jpg" align="left">
    E.F.:<b> The media is quick to promote the next "young lions" of the more mainstream jazz styles, who do you hear, coming up, as the next generation of "avante" players?<br /></b>
    <br />
    B.A.: I'm a little confused these days about who falls into which category. That's not my forte. And in terms of the next generation of great players it's hard to single out only a few. Some of the musicians who I've played with in the last few weeks and
    think are great include; Marcus Printup, Ben Perowsky, Clark Gayton, Balla Tounkara, and Scott Robinson. But going back over the 936 weeks since I arrived in New York it would be hard to tally.<br />
    <br />
    E.F.:<b> How do you feel about the whole stylistic label idea?<br />
    <br /></b>
    B.A.: I understand the need to put musical ideas and sounds into categories and to give them names. I think, in general, that's fine. The problem comes when people take these labels too seriously and confuse the title of a thing with its definition. People often put too much stock in words. I'm not a huge fan of words (although I do seem to be writing a lot today – Maybe it's the four cups of coffee I had this morning!). But I think if we could always put our ideas into words, there would be no need for instrumental music and other <br />
    abstract modes of expression.<br />
    <br />
    E.F.:<b> What recommendations do you have for a young musician as regards developing a personal instrumental and/or compositional voice and staying true to that voice in the face of other musicians' ideas about what is "good"?<br />
    <br /></b>
    B.A.: There's no good reason I know to become a jazz musician unless you find that music is the best way you know to express yourself and find meaning in life. But I don't think a musician ever really can be satisfied by merely aping the work of others. Pursuing an original thought or finding what's personal to you, conveying it to others, and then hearing what they have to say is what makes music worth playing. Otherwise, there's much more money in banking or IT.<br />
    <br />
    E.F.:<b> And finally for the gearheads.<br />
    <br /></b>
    BASS: Abraham Prescott, Vermont 1840<br />
    STRINGS: Tomastik Spirocore<br />
    PICK UP or MICROPHONE: Audio Technica clip on mic. Realist pickup<br />
    AMP - Polytone Minibrute III<br />
    <br /><br>
    Editor's Note: For a complete biography, discography, CD order info, and more, visit Ben Allison's web page at <a href="http://www.benallison.com">www.benallison.com</a><br><br>
    <img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/benallison/ben2.jpg" align=middle>
     



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