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Bassist Ben Allison's Moments Inside

Bassist/Composer Ben Allison
Kasia Idzkowska
Bassist/Composer Ben Allison

When New York City bassist and composer Ben Allison began writing music for his new album Moments Inside last year, he expected it would reflect the pain, anger and sorrow that was all around. But that’s not what happened.

“When I was done, I was surprised to find the music was, at least to my ears, very beautiful and maybe even positive and uplifting,” he says. “It’s much less dark than I thought it might have been. I realized in retrospect I wasn’t just writing music that I was feeling. I was really writing the music I needed. It was kind of a therapeutic process.”

Throughout the album is an undercurrent of Brazilian rhythmic and melodic influences. Allison says he’s been listening to Brazilian music for years, but at the time he was writing music for Moments Inside he was also taking a deep dive into Brazilian songwriters and absorbing them every day.

“One of the things I really admire about their writing style is they write these very lyrical, beautiful melodies, even in the songs that speak of pain,” he explains. “I really love that about the culture. So, I started referencing some of these Brazilian kinds of sounds. I didn’t want to do a Brazilian jazz record. It’s more like my feeling about their music through the lens of a New York jazz musician.”

Joining Ben Allison on Moments Inside are his longtime collaborators drummer Alan Mednard and guitarist Steve Cardenas. He also recruited Chico Pinheiro, a Brazilian guitarist currently based in New York City.

“I got a chance to play with Pinheiro in the fall of 2019 in a concert with Steve Cardenas and Anthony Wilson, another incredible guitarist,” Allison says. “To hear Steve and Chico’s approaches and the way they played off each other—they were just looking at each other and laughing and smiling. I could just tell there was this great rapport, even though they play their instruments very differently. It was clear that they had a very strong simpatico. That’s the only thing I knew when I first sat down to write this album: that Chico was going to be involved. And that helped guide my thought process too.”

Allison says the rapport between the two guitarists he first heard two years ago continued when they were together again in the recording studio laying down the tracks for Moments Inside.

“They have very different sounds and different approaches to the way they construct melodies and play rhythms, but they’re very complimentary,” he says. “I remember when we were recording how they pushed each other in surprising ways. I heard Steve start to play and kind of emulate some of the things Chico was doing. And later on in the session, I could hear Chico listening to the way Steve was approaching sections and playing off of that. They have such a deep conversation going, so they’re supportive of each other but then get out of the way so the other person can take the lead for the moment. I really wanted to capitalize on that energy and leave room for them do that, while Alan and I are doing the same thing with drums and bass.”

Ben Allison first emerged on the New York jazz scene in the 1990s when he founded the Jazz Composers Collective, a musician-run, non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging new music and building jazz audiences. The organization continued though 2005 with pianist Frank Kimbrough, trumpeter Ron Horton and saxophonists Michael Blake and Ted Nash, and others.

The bassist/composer released his first albums as a leader in the late 90s with members of the Jazz Composers Collective. Those initial releases showcased Allison’s inventive, memorable compositions and spirited experimentalism, with catchy melodies and infectious grooves mixed with bold adventurousness.

Allison often features instruments rarely heard in jazz like the oud, kora, cello, bass clarinet and toy piano. While the two guitar, bass and drums combination heard on Allison’s new Moments Inside album is common in rock, it’s unusual in jazz. But he grew up with the sound of the guitar, and it was the instrument he first played when he was nine-years-old.

“I was born in the 60s and in most of the music I grew up listening to, the guitar was heavily featured,” he says. “It was kind of the king of instruments. I discovered saxophones, trumpets and those sorts of instruments later in life once I started branching out and exploring other types of music. But the music I originally heard was very guitar-driven, and so that has a special place in my heart. You’re a product of where you come from, for good and bad. I think in my case I can say everything I create is almost a reaction to what I’ve experienced. And those formative experiences are very important.”

Allison didn’t take up the bass until he was a senior in a performing arts high school. The school band was working on a Motown revue when the bassist fell ill. The band instructor asked Allison to fill in on bass, even though he’d never played the instrument before. The instructor told him the bass is just like the guitar, but you just play the bottom four strings and down an octave.

“I kind of knew where the notes were, but it was so much more than that,” Allison remembers. “Its role is completely different and that’s what I discovered when I played these [legendary Motown session musician] James Jamerson bass lines, I thought, ‘holy cow, there’s so much here. This is really it.’ It felt right and I remember coming home after the concert and telling my mom I was going to be a bassist. That was pretty much the deciding moment.”

Although Allison first composed on a piano and now uses Logic software, he still writes quite a bit of his music on bass.

“It’s so easy not to think about it,” he explains. “There’s nothing really conscious or technically limiting between my thoughts and what I want to play. It just comes out and it’s fluid, so I usually play bass and sing along with it. But Logic is the next step up from that. It’s so easy to use and it can facilitate getting ideas out quickly. I have these flashes in my mind of a sound and they’re so fleeting sometimes and I have to get them out and somehow document them.”

As a composer, Allison says his music is tied to his bass playing and his bass playing is a product of what he works on compositionally.

“I think writing from the instrument you play can yield great results, and sometimes that is the only way people do it,” he explains. “Sometimes I do it that way and sometimes I don’t. I think bass players do have a unique perspective, of course. They tend to hear things in slightly different ways in terms of focus. I tend to think more contrapuntally and melodically in a linear way. But on this latest record I dove more deeply into harmony than I had in the past. Even Steve Cardenas, who has played with me for years, commented that these tunes have more chord changes than I usually write, but I was thinking of all the lush possibilities of two guitars that I wanted to flesh out some deeper harmonies.”

While Moments Inside features seven Allison originals, the bassist includes one composition by pianist Herbie Nichols, “House Party Starting.” Nichols was unappreciated and unrecognized during his short lifetime. It was only in the years after his death in 1963 that his unorthodox body of work received its due. Pianist Frank Kimbrough introduced Alison to Nichols’ compositions and the two co-led the Herbie Nichols Project, a band dedicated to researching, playing and recording Nichols’ music. Kimbrough passed away suddenly in December 2020 at the age of 64, not long before Allison started writing music for the Moments Inside. “House Party Starting” was the first Nichols composition Kimbrough played for him and the bassist included it on the album as a tribute to one of his dearest friends.

“When Frank passed, one idea was to record one of his tunes, but we had just done a very big retrospective project on his music for Newvelle Records. About 60 musicians were involved and it was this huge thing and it was wonderful. So I was thinking of what else I could do and I thought of this tune because it just reminds me of him.”

Allison’s arrangement of “House Party Starting” is very different from Herbie Nichols’ original 1955 piano trio recording. Allison and his band give Nichols’ tune a Bossa Nova beat.

“The thing about Nichols’ music is it’s evocative of so many different styles. From the very beginning when we started uncovering his tunes [with the Herbie Nichols Project] and fleshing them out and adding horns, because all of his recordings were done with just a piano trio format, all of these other colors and references started popping out. I realized how broad his music is and how ripe it is for interpretation. I always think of interpretation as a sincere form of flattery. You’re taking someone’s music, who you love and admire musically, and you’re doing your own thing with it, trying to take it and live with it and experience it, and then put it back out there somehow changed with your own perspective.”

As a companion to Moments Inside, Allison has released Moments Outside, a 24-minute, spontaneous, unedited free improvisation based on themes from Moments Inside recorded after the album was finished.

“At the end of every recording session I’ve ever done, I always record the band playing free as the last thing we do before packing up,” Allison says. “I usually pull out little moments that I think are really cool or successful or interesting and put those on the records. This time the whole thing worked for me. It’s a very intimate conversation that’s just got all of these great moments and it almost feels like a suite where tunes meld from one into another. It requires a certain kind of patience from a listener. I just wanted to put it out there in the world. It’s not for everybody, but if you have the patience and curiosity to listen on that level, I think it could be. I hope people enjoy it.”

Ben Allison’s Moments Inside is available on CD, Vinyl, mp3 and FLAC. Moments Outside is a digital-only release.

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