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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

We take a break from politics now - huh - to consider Ben Allison, a musician who just may be the hardest working man in jazz. He's a bass player and composer. And over the past 15 years, he's released eight records, led four bands, runs his own jazz club and publishes a newsletter. Along the way, he collected praise from critics, awards and a modest income.

From New York, Tom Vitale reports on Allison's latest efforts to build his audience.

TOM VITALE: Ben Allison says he tried to write simple music with simple beats for his new band.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: But performing those tunes is not as easy as it sounds.

Mr. BEN ALLISON (Musician): You'd be surprised at how hard it is for some jazz musicians to deal with a simple beat because they want to augment it and modify it and get tricky with it, rather than keep it simple. And that's one thing the older I've gotten, the more I tried to write simpler and simpler music stuff that's just not that complex. I can cut the - trapped on a lot of jazz musicians bond too or we try to, quote, unquote, "add interest" to a tune by making it more complex, you know, as if those were the same things.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Ben Allison combines subtle harmonies with spare melodies then flavors the compositions with electric guitar and a beat. He says the bass vamp on the title track of his new CD, "Little Things Run the World," was inspired by Led Zeppelin.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ALLISON: That's what I grew up listening to. I mean, it's hard to hear "Good Times Bad Times," you know, any kind of Led Zeppelin without hearing dum, dum. You know, that's part of my history, part of my youth.

(Soundbite of song, "Good Times Bad Times")

LED ZEPPELIN (Rock band): (Singing) In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man.

VITALE: Ben Allison was raised in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father was a psychoanalyst, his mother an English teacher. Like most kids born in 1966, he grew up listening to rock music. Then, he discovered jazz.

Mr. ALLISON: And when I got into jazz and started really pursuing that, it's such a deep music and it requires such a high level of musicianship. It takes a lot of time. It took all my time and all my energy. And for awhile there, I had blinders on. But, you know, in the process I kind of distanced myself from my roots in that way. And then, the older I get, the more I feel like I want to get back to it. And it's just so much fun to rock.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Though you couldn't really call this rock, Ben Allison's new CD was mixed like a rock record, says Matt Balitsaris, who engineered it.

Mr. MATT BALITSARIS (Owner, Palmetto Records): We were more inclined to put the guitar in stereo, put the drums in stereo across the middle and, you know, with the bass drum overlaid the bass so that you really feel that crunch of the rhythm.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Producer Matt Balitsaris owns Palmetto Records, the independent label that releases CDS by Ben Allison and other young composers like Ted Nash and Frank Kimbrough, along with the challenging music of the late Andrew Hill.

Balitsaris says the label's mission is to support jazz musicians whose work exists in the context of today's culture.

Mr. BALITSARIS: One of the messages that's constantly out there in the world today is that jazz is something that already happened. It started, and it ended, and everybody now is just a caretaker of this tradition. And, you know, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as long as people are making jazz records that sound like they were made in the '60s.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Composer Ben Allison comes out of New York's progressive jazz scene. For a dozen years until 2004, he co-directed the Jazz Composers Collective, a group dedicated to promoting new music that might otherwise have had a hard time reaching an audience.

With his new band, Allison says he's getting back to his roots but he's not going back to the electric bass. The only instrument in his Greenwich Village living room is a Prescott upright acoustic bass.

Mr. ALLISON: I started on electric bass way back in the day. But the first time I heard the acoustic bass, what knocked me out about it was the amount of sounds you can get out of it like, I'm a big proponent of kind of pulling up on the street to get kind of a sloppy sound.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ALLISON: And you can hit the strings and hit the finger board to get a drum sound.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ALLISON: There's a lot of — not just information, but a lot of emotional content to all of those other sounds. All of the slurs, all the squeaks, all the buzzes, and I want to have that really be a part of my music.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Ben Allison says he wants his politics to be a part of his music, too, in a subtle way. The name of his new band and the title of one of his slippery new tunes is "Man Size Safe."

Mr. ALLISON: I read an article in the Washington Post about the fact that our Vice President Dick Cheney apparently has a man-size safe in his office. And it struck me at first, I'm not humorist. It's an odd collection of words. But also a little bit disturbing.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Allison's seven previous records have all been hits with the critics. But his sales are only a tiny fraction of what a pop artist would bring in.

Palmetto owner Matt Balitsaris.

Mr. BALITSARIS: For a jazz record — for any jazz record — if we sell over 10,000, we're all going out to lunch.

VITALE: Ben Allison says lunch isn't the only reward.

Mr. ALLISON: All the people that listen to my music, by and large, have either heard us live, or come to us, or someone said, Oh, you've got to check this out, I mean, it's real personal. I got people writing from all over the world. They've all found the music in some way. It wasn't beam to their brains by Starbucks or anything. They found it because they like it, and that kind of makes up for all of the petty frustrations that you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

VITALE: Ben Allison says in the business of jazz, if you don't keep changing, you're done.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: You can hear full songs from Ben Allison's new album and discover more great jazz at our music Web site, npr.org/music.

Our parting words tonight come from a woman who spent her life fighting for the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony did vote once in November of 1872. She was later tried and convicted of illegal voting. Thirty years later, she received a postcard in the mail from a local political committee, reminding her to register. The card had been sent to S.B. Anthony. And since she was listed as the head of the household, the committee assumed she was a man. Anthony wrote back to the committee, quote, "In 1872, I received a request like this and I did register and vote, for which I was arrested, convicted and fined $100. Excuse me if I decline to repeat the experience."

Susan B. Anthony died in 1906, 14 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News for this week. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

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