Moments Inside by bassist Ben Allison
When New York bassist and composer Ben Allison started writing music for his new album Moments inside last year, he expected it to reflect the pain, anger and grief that surrounded him. But that’s not what happened.
“When I was done, I was surprised to find that the music was, at least to my ears, very beautiful and maybe even positive and uplifting,” he says. “It’s a lot less dark than I thought. I realized in retrospect that I wasn’t just writing the music that I felt. I was really writing the music I needed. It was kind of a therapeutic process.
Throughout the album there 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 also dove deep into Brazilian songwriters and absorbed them daily.
“One of the things that I really admire about their writing style is that they write these beautiful, very lyrical melodies, even in the songs that are about pain,” he explains. “I really like that in the culture. So, I started referencing some of these types of Brazilian sounds. I didn’t want to make a Brazilian jazz record. It’s more like my feeling about their music through the lens of a New York jazz musician.
Join 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.
“I had the chance to play with Pinheiro in the fall of 2019 at a gig with Steve Cardenas and Anthony Wilson, another amazing guitar player,” says Allison. “To hear Steve and Chico’s approaches and the way they played each other, they just looked at each other and laughed and smiled. I could just tell there was this great relationship, 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 sat down to write this album: that Chico was going to be involved. And it helped guide my thought process too.
Allison says the relationship 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 in how they build melodies and play beats, but they’re very complementary,” he says. “I remember when we were recording how surprisingly they were pushing each other. I heard Steve start playing and imitating some of the things Chico was doing. And later in the session, I could hear Chico listening to how Steve approached the sections and played them. They have such a deep conversation that they support each other, but then pull away so the other person can take the lead for the time being. I really wanted to capitalize on that energy and give them room to do that, while Alan and I do the same with drums and bass.
Ben Allison first appeared on the New York jazz scene in the 1990s when he founded the Jazz Composers Collective, a non-profit organization run by musicians and dedicated to encouraging new music and developing the jazz audience. The organization continued in 2005 with pianist Frank Kimbrough, trumpeter Ron Horton, and saxophonists Michael Blake and Ted Nash, among others.
The bassist/composer released his first albums as a frontman in the late 90s with members of the Jazz Composers Collective. These early releases showcased Allison’s inventive and memorable compositions and fiery experimentalism, with catchy melodies and infectious grooves mixed with daring adventure.
Allison often features instruments rarely heard in jazz like the oud, kora, cello, bass clarinet, and toy piano. While the combination of two guitars, bass and drums heard on the 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 with, the guitar was very present,” he says. “He was a bit like the king of instruments. I discovered saxophones, trumpets and those kinds of instruments later in life, once I started to branch out and explore other types of music. But the music I originally heard was very guitar-driven, so it has a special place in my heart. You are a product where you come from, for better or for worse. I think in my case, I can say that everything I create is almost a reaction to what I’ve been through. And these formative experiences are very important.
Allison didn’t learn bass until she was a senior at a performing arts high school. The school band was working on a Motown revue when the bassist fell ill. The band’s instructor asked Allison to fill in for the bass, even though he had never played the instrument before. The instructor told him that the bass is like the guitar, but you just play the bottom four strings and one octave down.
“I kind of knew where the notes were, but it was so much more than that,” Allison recalled. “His role is completely different and that’s what I discovered while playing these [legendary Motown session musician] James Jamerson’s basslines, I thought, ‘holy cow, there’s so much going on here. That’s really it. It was good and I remember coming home after the gig and telling my mom I was going to be a bass player. That was pretty much the decisive moment.
Although Allison originally composed on a piano and now uses Logic software, he still writes much 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. But Logic is the next step from that. It’s so easy to use and can make it easier to spread ideas quickly. I have these flashes in my mind of a sound and sometimes they’re so fleeting and I have to pull them out and document them with a one way or another.
As a composer, Allison says his music is tied to his bass playing and his bass playing is the product of what he’s been working on compositionally.
“I think writing from the instrument you play can get great results, and sometimes that’s the only way people do it,” he explains. “Sometimes I do it that way and sometimes I don’t. I think bass players have a unique perspective, of course. They tend to hear things slightly differently in terms of focus. I tend to think more contrapuntal and melodically in a linear fashion. But on this last record, I dove deeper into harmony than I did before. Even Steve Cardenas, who played with me for years, commented that these tracks had 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. deeper harmonies.
While Moments inside features seven Allison originals, the bassist includes a composition by pianist Herbie Nichols, “House Party Starting.” Nichols was neither appreciated nor recognized during his short life. It wasn’t until the years after his death in 1963 that his unorthodox work received its due. Pianist Frank Kimbrough introduced Alison to Nichols’ compositions and the two co-directed the Herbie Nichols Project, a group dedicated to researching, playing and recording Nichols’ music. Kimbrough died suddenly in December 2020 at the age of 64, shortly before Allison began writing music for the Moments inside. “House Party Starting” was Nichols’ first composition that Kimbrough played for him and the bassist included it on the album as a tribute to one of his dearest friends.
“When Frank died, one idea was to record one of his tracks, but we had just done a really big retrospective project on his music for Newvelle Records. About 60 musicians were involved and it was huge and it was wonderful. So I was thinking about what else I could do and I thought of this song because it just reminds me of him.
Allison’s arrangement of “House Party Starting” is very different from the original 1955 Herbie Nichols Piano Trio recording. Allison and his band give Nichols’ tune a Bossa Nova beat.
“The thing about Nichols’ music is that it evokes so many different styles. From the very beginning when we started discovering his tracks [with the Herbie Nichols Project] and by fleshing them out and adding horns, because all of his recordings were done with just a piano trio format, all these other colors and references started to come through. I realized how broad his music is and how ripe it is for interpretation. I always consider interpretation as a sincere form of flattery. You take somebody’s music, that you love and admire musically, and you make it your own thing, try to take it and live with it and experiment with it, and then put it back out there somehow another changed with your own point of view.”
As a companion of Moments insideAllison posted time awaya free, spontaneous and original 24-minute improvisation based on themes from Moments inside recorded after the end of the album.
“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 we pack up,” Allison says. “I usually take out little moments that I think are really cool or successful or interesting and put them on the records. This time everything worked for me. It’s a very intimate conversation that comes from having all these great moments and it almost feels like a sequel where the tunes blend into each other. This requires some patience on the part of the listener. I just wanted to put it out there in the world. It’s not for everyone, but if you have the patience and curiosity to listen at this level, I think it could be. I hope people will enjoy it.”
by Ben Allison Moments inside is available on CD, Vinyl, mp3 and FLAC. time away is a digital-only version.