Missed Music

Music you didn’t know you needed…until now.

Mellow but fascinating Jazz from Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel

Ben Allison looks 12, plays 35, and writes 50. (Image blogcritics.org)

Ben Allison looks 12, plays 35, and writes 50. (Image blogcritics.org)

Some Jazz is high-energy, get-up-and-dance music. Some is headphones and concentration music. Some can lift your mood or just hang out with you while you’re feeling down. Today, I’d like you to check out some Jazz that wants you to sit down, enjoy some coffee — maybe with a shot of Bailey’s — relax, and feel good.

Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel’s 2004 release, Buzz, is very accessible and easy to listen to, but is ultimately subtle and complex. This makes it pleasant the first time you listen to it, but rewarding to hear over and over again. The melodies are relaxed and mellow without being boring at all. The improvisation is fresh without ever getting too far outside.

Ben Allison himself plays double bass, but he serves as more of a band leader, since the bass isn’t the most prominently featured instrument in the mix. Instead, we get richly textured horns and deftly measured piano. The entire disc is good, but I particularly like the first four tracks, and these are the ones I have put on my iPod:

  • Respiration – Ben and company ease us into the album with this track that creeps in like a wary cat. Foggy horns and patient, vamping keyboards cycle through the main line a couple times before the soloing begins. When they do start improvising, you just want to close your eyes and tilt your head back. You can hear the entire track here on YouTube, but this is a live performance of Ben Allison with a different ensemble, Man Size Safe, giving it a slightly different feel.
  • Buzz – Again the groove starts off mellow but continues to grow patiently throughout. The theme gives way to fantastic and frenetic solo saxophone and some excellent keyboard work that is right in the pocket. The percussionist earns his paycheck on this track as he seems to be playing at 3 times the speed of the other guys. On this track in particular, they do a marvelous job of capturing the feel of a smoky jazz club in the studio.
  • Green Al – The backbone of this track is a sparse arrangement of snare-rim percussion and Ben on double bass. A pleasant horns melody fleshes out the song, but the muscle is provided by the delicate touch of the sax player. Having played sax for a few years, I can tell you that it is extremely difficult to get such rich tone out of a sax when you’re playing so softly. Pay attention, though, to what Ben is doing in the background on bass. He doesn’t so much anchor the song as provide a rhythmic and melodic counterpoint to what the sax player is doing.
  • Mauritania – You can hear a bit of African flavor in the theme. A flute joins the horns on this track, which features the rest of the band more prominently. The soloing work is virtuoso: Ben’s bass solo explores odd corners of the groove; the trombone solo is nasty and beautiful; the flute soars and flutters.

Ben Allison actually plays with several different ensembles, but I prefer his work with Medicine Wheel. These guys are very comfortable together and at the top of their game on this release. I have not had the opportunity to catch any of Ben’s ensembles live yet, but I’m working on it. Check out Ben and his many works at his website.


April 6, 2009 - Posted by | Jazz

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