New Band Features Jenny Scheinman, Shane Endsley, Steve Cardenas, Rudy Royston
Bassist/composer Ben Allison's ninth album, Think Free, is part of a paradigm shift that began with his 2005 Palmetto Records release, Cowboy Justice. “I wanted a band that rocked,” says Allison of his changing sound. “I was moving away from the chamber-jazz elements of Medicine Wheel and Peace Pipe and trying to incorporate these other sounds into my music. I continue to try to get to something personal. Cowboy Justice, Little Things Run the World (Palmetto, 2008), and now Think Free are all one continuous train of thought.” Think Free builds not only on the concept but also the personnel of its predecessors. Longtime compatriot Steve Cardenas returns on guitar, alongside trumpeter Shane Endsley, violinist Jenny Scheinman and drummer Rudy Royston. Each of them bear impressive artistic résumés: Cardenas is an alumnus of Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band and editor of the Thelonious Monk Fakebook; Endsley is a rising voice on trumpet best known for his work in Kneebody and alongside Ani Difranco; Scheinman has been widely acclaimed for her performance as both violinist and vocalist; and Royston's training in both the conservatory and the church contributes to his soulful precision behind the kit.
The addition of Scheinman's violin to the quartet of trumpet, guitar, bass and drums had been in Allison's mind since 2005. “In the past two years I was fortunate to play a lot with Jenny, often in collaboration with Rudy and Steve. We all felt an immediate and strong musical connection.” Allison continues, “I think an extremely important part of being a composer/bandleader is assembling an interesting combination of musicians. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were masters of this. Their music is very much an extension of the rapport between, and personalities of, the members of their groups. It could be said that choosing the right musicians is part of the compositional process.”
As on past records, Think Free is comprised of Allison originals both new and old. “Fred” wears its compelling simplicity on its sleeve, both musically and in its title given by Allison's five-year-old daughter. Scheinman turns in an outstanding solo over the rocking groove provided by Allison and Royston. Her violin blends with Endsley's round trumpet tone on the spacious head of “Platypus,” with Cardenas' arpeggios churning underneath. The tune is named in honor of Charles Darwin, whose bicentennial passed while Allison was writing music for the album. “Broke” brings to mind, for Allison, the rusted tractors along the highways in Missouri, with a gentle lilt and the melancholy delivered by muted trumpet and violin. Cardenas' pulsing chords open “Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Godzilla” (a reference for Spinal Tap fans) before Allison and Royston join the party with a wallop of a backbeat. Endsley uncorks some digital mangled trumpet, to which Scheinman responds with scratchy bowing. “…vs. Godzilla” is an improvised miniature based on the same piece, Royston's toms add an ominous undertone to Endsley's Harmon-muted ostinato.
Longtime fans of Allison will recognize the rest of the repertoire: “Sleeping Giant” is the new metamorphosis of “R&B Fantasy” from Buzz (Palmetto, 2004), which juxtaposes the chamber-jazz tendencies of Allison's earlier work with his new direction towards direct, rocking simplicity. “Green Al,” originally from the same album, is now dedicated to Gore in lieu of Green. “Peace Pipe,“ from that band's eponymous 2002 record, re-appears as well. “Re-interpreting one's own music is a big part of the jazz tradition,” Allison says. “Like Monk when he was in his mid-career, I've probably written about 50 tunes. As my groups change, it's always interesting to me to hear the ways in which a particular group of musicians deals with a tune. Different instrumentations always inspire me to rearrange material in novel ways.” This is evident most effectively on “Peace Pipe,” where Allison, Cardenas, and Scheinman combine to emulate Mamadou Diabaté's kora from the original recording.
Allison states, “My music is in flux.” Think Free presents the latest phase of his promising and riveting evolution in the company of brilliant musical allies.
The album will be launched at NYC's Jazz Standard (116 E. 27th Street), October 16-18, 2009.