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 previous ones.
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 techniques?
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 finger work?
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.
From left: Allison Miller, Brandon Seabrook, Steve Cardenas, and Ben Allison. What was your recording method for your upright bass?
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 qualities.
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 Different Today [Sonic Camera, 2013]
Bass 1840 Abraham Prescott Double Bass
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