Bassist and composer Ben Allison's new album, Action-Refraction, can now be heard in full as part of NPR Music's First Listen series through its release date of Tuesday, April 12. Do tell us what you think of it?
Like the last two weeks with Gretchen Parlato and Orrin Evans, we've designed our First Listen to be accompanied by a live interview and web chat with the leader. So we'll speak with Ben Allison this Thursday, April 7 at 1 p.m. ET, and taking your questions via a web chat at the same time. Put your ears to the music and come with your thoughts.
Here's a starting point. Action-Refraction is an album of covers, from artists as disparate as Samuel Barber, Donny Hathaway and PJ Harvey. So we've compiled different versions of the originals here for your reference. We found a YouTube clip where available, and we excerpted melodies where they weren't. Let's start with Thelonious Monk's "Jackie-ing":
Excerpt of "Jackie-ing," from Thelonious Monk, 'Thelonious Monk In Italy.'
This version is from Milan in 1961, as heard on the album Thelonious Monk in Italy. Charlie Rouse is on tenor sax, with John Ore on bass and Frankie Dunlop on drums. Being Monk, the melody is already super-syncopated. As you can hear, the Ben Allison version (with that great bass clarinet and electric guitar sound) exploits its various nooks and crannies even further.
Allison is a big PJ Harvey fan. Here's her live version of "Missed," which can be interpreted as questioning her own faith in God. Allison isn't much for religion; his previous album Think Free makes that known.
"Someday We'll All Be Free" is a Donny Hathaway classic, covered by many. Allison's version features some noisy guitar work. Here's part of the original.
Excerpt of "Someday We'll All Be Free," from Donny Hathaway, 'Extensions of a Man.'
The movie Philadelphia spawned two highly acclaimed songs. Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" won the Academy Award for Best Song, but Neil Young's "Philadelphia" is arranged for the album. I'm a bit disappointed that Allison couldn't get Joey Arias to join him on the recording — as I once witnessed live, and it killed — but Steve Cardenas' phrasing of the melody is beautiful.
You know some of the music of American composer Samuel Barber, even if you don't know him: He wrote "Adagio for Strings," which has been used in all kinds of filmic settings. Of course, he wrote many, many other pieces, including a song cycle for voice and piano called Hermit Songs. "St. Ita's Vision" is one of the lieder, and is apparently a favorite of student recitals, if you believe YouTube.
The most famous version of "We've Only Just Begun" is, of course, the soft-rock gem by The Carpenters. That's below. (LOL at the two tambourine players.) But in Allison's liner notes, he cheekily mentions that the song is "the classic Crocker National Bank television commercial theme." And lo, as a little Googling proves, it started life that way.
Finally, the last cover on the album is actually an Allison original, which he's recorded twice before. "Broken" was called "Andrew" on the 1999 release Third Eye:
Excerpt of "Andrew," from Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel, 'Third Eye.'
And "Broke," from 2009's Think Free.
Excerpt of "Broke," from Ben Allison, 'Think Free.'
There's some sort of spaghetti western meets science fiction action going on in the newest version. Jason Lindner on synths, everyone. Again, hear the full new album here, and join us for a chat on Thursday.