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Ben Allison on jazz's evolution: "It's always changing... it has to change; otherwise, it dies"

Ben Allison on jazz's evolution: "It's always changing... it has to change; otherwise, it dies"

Equally gifted as a bassist and composer, Ben Allison has released some outstanding and forward-thinking recordings over the course of his career, beginning with his 1996 debut, Seven Arrows, through his forthcoming release, The Stars Look Very Different Today. Slated for release in December, the album reflects his lifelong fascination with science, technology and film. While his roots are planted in jazz, he brings in a number of other influences and cinematic elements into his daring compositions. We spoke with Allison about his new album, how it's his most personal recording to date, and what elements he thinks are crucial to jazz.

See also: Sat & Sun: Ben Allison at Dazzle, 11/9-11/10

Westword: You've had a long fascination with science and space, and I wanted to get your take on the concept behind the The Stars Look Very Different Today.

Ben Allison: It's my eleventh album. It's the first under my own imprint. You reach a certain point in your career where it makes sense to step out on your own. I'm excited for this new chapter, musically, of course, and also kind of on the organizational side. This album is probably my most personal album to date because it is, musically, very personal, and also I mixed it myself and produced it myself, so it's really kind of a full extent of what an artist can do to express himself.

As I'm thinking of what to do musically and trying to come up with some original work that's new music and like new tunes, I'm always letting myself be guided and motivated and inspired by things that things that I am drawn to, just on personal level, that are extra-musical -- things that are not necessarily musical inspirations but inspiration from outside the world of music. Science is one of the things. It's a huge topic, but I have always been drawn to science, the natural world, trying to figure out things work, why things are the way they are, you know?

So as I'm putting this music together and trying to find new sounds, new textures, new ideas, new melodies, new timbres, you know, let me create some new forms for the band to play; I find myself increasingly driven by these other things, like science, you mentioned space, yeah. Anything to do with cosmology. Physics is interesting to me, the kind of thing on the side. I guess you could say science is a hobby for me.

You talked about how this record is your most personal, and I was wondering if you could expand on that.

Instrumental musicians, we don't write lyrics. Even though some of the tunes on the record do have lyrics, I didn't have a singer sing them, but in my mind I hear the lyrics. But what we do have is an unspoken language, especially with jazz musicians, who are very improvisational by nature. You think of it as pretty much like we're having a conversation. In a free form conversation the topic may be set in advance -- that is the the tune itself -- but beyond that, the sky's the limit, in terms of where we can go with it. So, we're looking for ways to spontaneously compose something... to have a conversation that makes some kind of sense where we're reacting to each other, taking cues from each other and pushing each other in different directions.

So, the nature of what we do is very personal. I can't think of three other musicians who could have made this album. The other musicians on this record are Allison Miller on drums, Steve Cardenas on guitar and Brandon Seabrook on guitar and banjo. They each have their own aesthetic, their own approach, they're own voices as instrumentalists and composers. It is, by nature, personal music. It's a thing that can only happen when you get four like-minded people in the room, and allow the conversation to unfold naturally.

As far as the compositions go, did you bring in sketches or are they a little more detailed?

It's a full range. Some of the tunes are -- for lack of a better description -- very carefully crafted. That is, I have sections that I have outlined, things that I have notated, transitions that I want to have happen. On the other end of the spectrum, we've got some stuff that is completely and totally improvised without any pre-thought. We just pressed record and started playing. It really runs the gamut. It depends on the tune. I like all of it. To me, they are all points along a spectrum.

If you can imagine somebody like Beethoven, who would write and deliberate over each note over many weeks until he crafted every single note. And within a certain limit, every performance of a Beethoven symphony will sound more or less the same way. I mean, they're the same notes, they're relatively the same tempos, same timbre, same instrumentation. Classical music, let's call that one sides of the spectrum and the other side being free jazz, where there's nothing predetermined and anything goes.

To me, they're all different modes of composition. They're all different ways to compose music. One is extremely spontaneous, and the other one is extremely premeditated. I like traveling everything in between, I like both extremes, and I like traveling that whole spectrum. I tend to air on the side of less premeditated. I think of it as I'm creating a landscape that the musicians are then free to explore.

So, in other words, setting up a kind of a world and they have to figure out what to do with that -- what they need to find in there and really add their own voice into the mix. I think that's the nature of jazz, in general, and if you keep it spontaneous enough to make it interesting for us as musicians, and hopefully for the audience, as well.

While there are elements of jazz on the record, would you still call it a jazz record? I mean, the term "jazz" can be interpreted in many different ways. How would you describe the album?

It's hard to describe in words, and if I could describe it in words, I probably wouldn't be a instrumental musician. I have a hard time putting these thoughts into words. I'd probably be a poet if I had that kind of handle over language, which I do not, so we express ourselves through sound. But if you're asking how would I describe this, and would I call this jazz, and if so, why, I like to call it jazz. I like that word, just because, for me, I think of myself as a jazz musician. It's the music I gravitated most strongly to when I was a kid, that is learning to be a musician, and by "kid," I mean teens and early twenties, when I was learning to be an instrumentalist.

I grew up as a young child listening to rock and folk and classical music and reggae and ska. My first professional experience was in a salsa band, like a dance band. But jazz as a word I think is always expanding. The nature of the music is that it is a fusion music. I don't mean that in the '70s sense, or Spyro Gyra, or anything, but that it is a coming together of different musical styles and genres.

I think jazz musicians have always tried to incorporate whatever sounds they like into their music. Either they're references to particular genres, maybe bringing in some Afro-Cuban stuff and the whole Brazilian infusion of bossa novas and sambas, or how rock grooves and sounds work their way in, soul and funk and whatever... all of these words are words that were mostly invented by people who write about music and rarely by the musicians themselves, but we use them.

So, in one way, I would just say we play music. In another way, I'm ashamed to use the word jazz, and I like the word jazz. I actually love it. And it does represent how I feel about this music. It's largely improvisational. It's the kind of music that is constantly evolving. Jazz is an evolutionary art form. It's always changing. I think it has to change otherwise it dies. It's like a shark. It's got to swim forward. That's how I feel about it.

Throughout my entire career, I've focused a lot on composition -- that is, trying to come up with new music in the jazz idiom, constantly kind of span the definition of what jazz is, and I think that I have every right to say I'm a jazz musician, and jazz musicians define the music on a daily basis. We define it.

In another interview, you talked about how jazz has an element of risk and danger, as well as improvisation, and doesn't necessarily have to swing.

Well, I think those are crucial elements to jazz. The groove itself -- grooves come and go. Even swing is a big word. Swing as a beat -- there isn't one kind of swing. The way Duke Ellington was swinging in the '30s is really different from how Han Bennink is swinging in Europe. Some people would say that's not swinging. Or lets say it's different from how Art Blakey was swinging and different from how jazz drummers of today are "swinging." That word is big. It's all part of a spectrum. A swing beat as a general thing is not an essential component of jazz. It's not like Dizzy stopped being a jazz musician when he played Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Going to back to what you said earlier about you wrote lyrics for the new record but didn't use them. Why did you do that? Did it kind of give you a better handle on a particular song?

I've been increasingly interested in trying to write songs as a launching point the jazz tunes that we play. I think what happens with a lot of jazz musicians, myself included, is - and I've said this many time before -- we often fall into the psychological trap of trying to add interest to a piece of music by making it more complex, like we equate the two.

Well, this is boring; therefore, I'm going to make it more complicated for me -- more tricky, more intricate. In my opinion, I think simple songs that have people like to listen to a lot but are very simple and not complex are in one sense are very deep because it's a mystery to me why simple songs - good, simple songs - bare repeated listens.

Somebody could listen to a simple folk song a hundred times, and it still works, even when the lyrics aren't being sung. So, through my career, I've tried to hone in on that, and I've tried to simplify my music every year as best as I can, with a few exceptions. But for the most part, I try to simplify. I try to get simpler and simpler in my process and how I write. Whether or not people hear it that way, I can't say, but for me, it's become simpler and simpler through the years, but hopefully, simple yet you want to hear it more than once. That to me is the goal.

Writing lyrics and thinking about them as songs is one way, as a composer, to kind of get in that headspace and to think of these things as songs. How would it sound to sing these melodies, for instance? And that's how I've been writing lately -- playing bass and singing along. So whatever melody you hear on the record is something I sang and played on bass into my iPhone, into Logic, or whatever, and recorded it as the beginning of what would then become the tune.

I know you're a big fan of film music. Do you ever get images in your head when you're writing songs?

I would say I think when I'm writing I'm thinking almost more visually than I am sonically. I'm thinking visually so much that to me the songs really are little movies. So I don't know what that is, if people can relate to that. Brains are interesting. They work in weird ways. It's hard to put into words -- hard to explain.

But to answer your question briefly, I'm very visually oriented. I think in visual symbols and when I write music I usually have a little movie running through my mind. When I dream it's very visual and I try to translate that into sound.

When you wrote "Dr. Zaius" were you thinking about Planet of the Apes or was it maybe inspired by the music of that time?

Definitely. I happened to be watching Planet of the Apes when I was writing that tune. The score of Planet of the Apes is Jerry Goldsmith, and he was writing music at that time -- late '60s/early '70s -- that was actually more reminiscent of early '60s/late '50s era theme music. And that is, if you can imagine, most of the audience would know Twilight Zone-sounding music, which is kind of twentieth century classical sounding in the orchestration with a little bit of electronica mixed in.

So maybe a Theramin or some low electric guitar sounds mixed with some classical percussion like tympani and glockenspiel and things like that. So, these are the sounds. Goldsmith's score for that movie is pretty much on that tip. This song that I wrote isn't on that tip. It has more rock references in a way, but I was thinking about that music a lot when I was writing this tune and that era.

When that movie came out, I was probably five or so, and it was a huge deal. I was too young to see it in the theater, but three or four years later, the franchise was going on, and so I had all the Planet of the Apes figurines that looked like G.I. Joes, except they were ape-like and all of the toys that came with it, like the tree houses, the rope ladders and all that sort of stuff. This was in the mid '70s and the music of that era.

The older you get, the more I find I tend to reference things earlier in my life rather than the things I was interested in in my twenties. Now I'm kind of going farther back and thinking about things I was really into when I was six.

"The Ballad of Joe Buck" is a little nod to Midnight Cowboy and John Barry, but I heard a little Tom Waits in there. I don't know if it was the banjo maybe.

It's a combination of both. Both of these were swirling around in brain as I'm referencing all the sounds basically of my entire life for the last 45 years, 47 years. I think that's what musicians tend to do. We're looking for influences. When you sit down to write music for an album and you're really figurally or maybe even actually looking down at a blank sheet of music paper anything can happen. To me, being a jazz musician means anything can happen. The older I get the more confidence I get in allowing myself to follow my instincts, like whatever appeals, whatever I like is going to somehow factor in to my music.

I'm hoping that other people hear it and other people like it, obviously. Otherwise I wouldn't put it out on an album. I'd just keep it to myself. But at the end of the day the inspiration all comes from things I happen to like, that turn me on musically and I said before things that have nothing to do with music inspire me.

Do you write music on the bass or piano or maybe a combination of both?

As I said before lately I've been playing bass and just singing along with it. That's my go-to. Some of it's done on guitar because I said before it's kind of a guitar driven band. My guitar chops are not happening or not very good so sometimes I end up coming up with things that a guitarist might not have thought of just because I don't really know what I'm doing just because I'm kind of going by ear and figuring out what I want to hear and then just throwing it at these guys and they guitar-ify it.

The rest of it's done... I use Logic a lot, which is a music recording program really but it has some built-in sequencing and some pretty decent samples and it allows you to stack things up. I used to work exclusively in Pro Tools, which is how most people record albums and it's pretty much entirely music recording and editing software. Logic has a little bit more compositional tools in the way that it handles MIDI.

It just allows me to build up sound and build up parts and rearrange them in ways that are very use so that the workflow is easy so you can kind of move with - not at the speed of thought - but close to it. So if I have an idea I can try it right there and just see what it's going to sound like. It's more like a visualization tool if you were working in visual medium but it's an auditory tool. I don't know what the word is. It just allows you to hear some things kind of as mock-up, an approximation of what might happen.