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Ben Allison

Ben Allison | Musical Explorations

Nine albums in a little over 13 years is an impressive feat for any artist, but for jazz composer/bassist/bandleader Ben Allison, it’s all part of the gig. “I can’t really recall what sparked my interest in music,” he says. “I’ve just always loved it.”

That love’s most recent recorded expression is in full bloom on his most recent album, Think Free (Palmetto), a lovely, at times challenging work that sees him expanding on the funk, soul and rock that he’s been introducing over the past few years. That African influences are now detectable as well is all part of the package; while Allison is forthrightly stretching beyond the “traditional” jazz sounds of his earliest works, his natural curiosity and willingness to explore have made him one of the more enchantingly innovative musicians on the scene today.

I’ve been exposed to a lot of music. It’s always been the thrill of discovery that’s driven me on,” he says. “My fans are after something that can surprise or intrigue them, and when I get e-mails from people in places like South Korea and Colombia – places I’ve never played– it’s really gratifying.”

Allison drifted into jazz while in high school, playing guitar and drums – “I was listening to a lot of West African and Caribbean music at the time” – and only took up the bass when a member of his high school jazz ensemble wasn’t able to make the group’s final concert.

Graduating from college with a degree in music, “I hit the New York City scene in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, when the era of just getting on a bus and touring around was either dying or dead. A lot of my colleagues at the time were doing standard jazz, and I was part of a wave that wanted to do something new.”

In that spirit, Allison formed the Jazz Composers Collective, a musician-run, non-profit organization dedicated to constructing an environment where artists can exercise their ideals of creating and risking through the development and exploration of new music.

“Jazz was being treated like a repertory art form when we started out,” he explains. “We saw it, and continue to see it, as more a vibrant, new, ever-evolving movement.”

That evolution permeates Think Free, from the playfully titled “Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Godzilla” (named after a quote from This Is Spinal Tap), a steadily loping groove that Allison describes as “a way of getting across the idea that musicians sometimes take themselves too seriously”) to the self-explanatory soul-funk of “Green Al” and the Native American-tinged “Peace Pipe,” which reflects Allison’s lifelong fascination with Native culture.

He says he’s intent on continuing to explore new sounds for his next album, which he’ll likely start recording in October with an eye toward a February ’11 release. To that end, he expects to add a pair of guitarists and a keyboardist to his core group “for a much more lush sound.”

With Allison, of course, quality and quantity seem to go hand in hand. “Jazz takes a lot of chances,” he says. “And there’s something for me that’s really thrilling about that.”

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