Brandon Seabrook, electric guitar ("Someday We'll All Be Free" and "Broken")
Rudy Royston, drums
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The job description of the jazz musician often includes playing in cover bands.
We don't usually say this, exactly, around jazz. Embedded in the jazz aesthetic is the desire to be unique, to express oneself in an artful, personal style — not to mimic Lynyrd Skynyrd or Bon Jovi. But nearly all jazz improvisers learn self-expression precisely through standard repertoire; by learning the classics and being asked to play them onstage. This is part of how audiences enjoy the stuff, too: What did X saxophonist do over that progression? How would Y singer have styled that melody?
The general line on Ben Allison is that he's a great bassist and composer. He has a knack for writing detailed but friendly, tuneful music; of late, he's also been happily merging rock riffs and thumps into his bands. So it makes no sense, and all sorts of sense, that his new album is a collection of covers, aptly titled Action-Refraction.
There are songs here by composers known to jazz and classical audiences: Thelonious Monk (a loping and throbbing "Jackie-ing"), Samuel Barber (a Sun Ra-influenced version of the "St. Ita's Vision" lied) and Allison himself ("Broken," which sounds nothing like his 1999 or 2009 recordings of the same tune). But there's also PJ Harvey's "Missed," faithful to the original's rock energy; Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free," which layers two guitar solos over each other; music from the movie Philadelphia (the balladic Neil Young song, not the Bruce Springsteen theme); and a metric maneuver and harmonic re-scoring (that bridge!) in "We've Only Just Begun," made famous on '70s AM radio by The Carpenters.
It's all scored for what Allison calls an "electro-acoustic orchestra." Listen for how Michael Blake, well, "refracts" human voices on saxophone. Also, how Jason Lindner sends deep-space transmissions from piano and synthesizer. There's also lots of great low-end: Allison's acoustic bass and Rudy Royston's bass drum and toms pop brilliantly. And the linchpin of the operation is Steve Cardenas, who plays rock sounds like a jazz musician. He's joined by the similarly inclined plectrist Brandon Seabrook for two tunes.
When you get jazz-trained musicians to "cover" a tune, they'll use it as an excuse to channel their individual imaginations. Action-Refraction is a great example: It ambles and shreds; it's carefully arranged, but full of improvisatory zeal. It's got an experimental edge, but in a familiar and fun rather than abstruse way. It's a covers album, but also a Ben Allison album. Happily, neither one trumps the other.
Action-Refraction will stream here in its entirety until its release on April 12. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below.