As a bassist, composer, and bandleader,
Ben Allison has set himself apart from the New York City jazz
pack, where the demand for his singular—often, unconventional—
style has led to work on more than 50 albums with
a wide array of artists. Ben’s talent as a bandleader has propelled
him to headline famous stages all over the world, and
his dedication to mentoring young musicians and furthering
jazz music has led to a position as adjunct professor at New
School University, board membership with the National Academy
of Recording Arts and Sciences, and a founding role in the
Jazz Composers Collective.
Allison kicks convention to the curb on “D.A.V.E.,” the opening
track of his 11th studio album, The Stars Look Very Different
Today, building the song around a rhythmic riff strummed on
his upright bass with a folded NYC Metro card. Fast forward to
“Swiss Cheese D,” where Allison pulls his G string entirely off
the fingerboard and deftly plucks it with his index finger while
playing a root-5 pattern with his thumb, achieving a sound that
could easily be mistaken for sitar. While Allison’s experimentation
with technique has become one of his calling cards, his
willingness to incorporate genres such as rock, folk, and world
music into his jazz compositions shows the fearlessness of his
approach to songwriting.
Allison shines the brightest within the unscripted and improvised
moments of his music. Working within the quartet format,
he is accompanied by guitarist Steve Cardenas [Charlie Haden,
Steve Swallow], banjo and guitar player Brandon Seabrook, and
drummer Allison Miller, each of whom share Ben’s penchant for
the unexpected. And while Allison himself may not even know
what is coming next, he happily dives into the unexplored and
searches for what he can learn from it.
Stylistically, the new album is very different from
On every record I try to do something a little different. Every
new album is an extension of what I’m thinking and feeling at
the time; no matter what I’m doing, I always want to move forward.
This one is different because it has a bit of a rock sound,
which I’ve been moving toward the last few albums. There are
also folk nuances. I love scores and music for film,
so I wanted to work off that concept and make
film references throughout the songs.
What did you set out to accomplish on
bass this time around?
I often try to write things that I sound good
playing. That’s one of the reasons musicians write
to the certain style that pertains to them. I usually
don’t focus too heavily on making the bass stand
out in a soloist way. I don’t usually play melodies,
and I rarely take extended bass solos on records.
That’s not really my style. For this album I wanted
to create as many textures and as many layers as
I could with a quartet.
Why did you opt for a quartet?
I always prefer when there’s a lot of group
interplay, because that involves risk. When you’re
playing with other musicians, you never know
what they’re going to feed you, or what they’re
going to make you react to. True jazz musicians
aren’t afraid of what’s coming next; they actually
perform best when it’s spontaneous. You can’t
be afraid as a musician.
So much of your music relies on improvisation
and unscripted moments. How do
you approach these?
It depends on the tune, because some songs
have dynamic space that we’ve thought about
in advance. You really have to be in the right
headspace, and you can’t be worrying about anything.
Like any good conversation, you pick a
topic, which in this case would be the tune, and
then you just see where the conversation goes.
Because it’s a performance, you’re trying to keep
the conversation flowing and concise enough to
where it doesn’t become a rant. I write all sorts
of landmarks into the tunes so the players can
reference where we are at anytime and it will pull
them back in. It’s all about listening and reacting.
What are some of your unusual playing
There are hundreds of them, and I’m always
exploring for new ones. Even adjusting where
you place your right hand and how you pluck
the strings can make a big different in your tone.
You can angle your right hand downward a certain
way to the fingerboard to make the string
jump up, or you can cross the fingerboard or you
can wrap your finger around the string and flip
it upward. On the left hand, sometimes I hold
my fingers down really hard so that I get a long
sustain, other times I lift it up quickly so that
the note is cut off. I’ve been known to take solos
where I don’t even press the string all the way
down to the fingerboard, which gives it almost a
box drum or muted marimba sound. Sometimes
I even pick with three fingers on my right hand
in a way that a classical guitarist would.
And how would you describe your typical
A symphony conductor recently come up to me
after a performance and said he had never seen
anyone with technique like mine, which I didn’t know
how to interpret. But he clarified by saying that my
hands are really collapsed, though my intonation is
perfect. There’s a classical technique that I struggled
to learn early on in my career that I eventually gave
up because it hurt so badly, and I realized that’s the
last thing you want to do. So I developed my own
personal technique. That made me come to the conclusion
that you can approach technique in a classical
sense where there is a certain way of holding the
bass and everyone is supposed to subscribe to those
technical principles because it gives you great command
over your instrument. However, my definition
of technique is more abstract, and that is: Whatever
gives you the ability to get out what’s in your heart
and your head through your fingers is best.
What was your recording method for your
|From left: Allison Miller, Brandon Seabrook, Steve Cardenas, and Ben Allison.
I used two mics on the bass itself, and then I used
one microphone on a 1x12 amp that was kept in a
booth. This gave me different pieces of tonal character
that I could mix in and out depending on the
track. It was pretty much three inputs for each song.
Each of the mics had different characteristics, especially
the ones on my bass. One got a lower sound
below the bridge, and the other was higher up near
the neck so I’d get more of my string sound.
What led you to play the bass?
When I started as a musician, I played hand
drums, drum kit, and guitar. I loved all three, but
I felt in high school that I had to focus on one or
the other. That’s when I picked up the electric bass
for the first time and the acoustic shortly after. To
me, it felt like if the guitar and drums had a baby, it
would be a bass. You have the percussive quality of
a drum set and then the harmonic capabilities of a
guitar. I do tend to think of my bass having drum-like
So why did you choose the upright specifically?
The sheer amount of sounds you can get out of
upright has always drawn me to it. There are so many
ways you can alter your sound naturally because of its
many timbers and textures. Compared to my experience
with electric bass—and I love electric bass—I
felt like I could get many more options on acoustic.
How different are electric and upright basses
in your opinion?
It’s a totally different instrument; you cannot
think of the electric bass and the acoustic bass in
the same realm. Aside from the fact that they share
a similar role in a band, they’re technically very different.
I had a learning curve for sure to adjust to
the upright, but that’s true of any instrument. I pity
trumpet players, because it can six months before you
can even get a note to sound like anything. Having
experience with guitar and electric bass definitely
helped me get accustomed to it.
What have been the biggest strides in your
playing to this point?
I’ve definitely become more confident and comfortable
with getting what I hear out through my
fingers quickly and without hesitation. Hopefully
I’ve gained a lot of control, which is what we want
as musician’s right? Once you gain better control,
then you move on to learn the subtleties of the genre
you’re playing in and its dialect. I started my first
professional gig playing with a salsa band in high
school, and I had to learn the salsa language and
the feel of those grooves. It’s simple music on one
hand, but it also has difficult intricacies like reggae.
You can’t just play a reggae line well without possessing
the feel. If you are a practiced musician and you
have control over your instrument, then it’s not so
insurmountable of a task to learn a new genre. So
much of it comes from playing with as many good
musicians as you can, and never losing your desire
to try new things.
Ben Allison, The
Stars Look Very
Bass 1840 Abraham Prescott Double
Rig Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 and
Aguilar AG 500SC heads, Aguilar SL
112, GS 112 & GS 112NT cabinets
Strings Thomastik Spirocore (E and
A), Velvet Anima Hybrid Gut (D and G)
Bow Various French-style bows
Mics Audio-Technica Pro-35s