Online since August 2002

A group sound

From the Summer 2004 issue.

By Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel

Palmetto Records: 2004

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

Downbeat Magazine, that bible of jazz, has brought up bassist Ben Allison's name in categories like "Artist of the Year", "Rising Star", "Composer of the Year" and "Arranger of the Year."

You get the idea: They think he's hot stuff. And they've got it right.

Allison's "Riding the Nuclear Tiger" was the artist's last disc to come this way. It was a septet effort – bass/drums/piano, with two reeds and trumpet, and a cello to round out the textures. Allison has changed those textures a bit on "Buzz," with a trombone replacing the trumpet, and the elimination of the cello. What you get on this disc is a richer sound, eloquent, time-stretching arrangements and an ever-present undercurrent of gentle rhythmic insistence.

The "Arranger of the Year" Category that Downbeat puts Allison in seems especially apt. The harmonics here are subtle and cool and complex, with every solo receiving judicious aid and abetment. An initial blind listen had me thinking of the underappreciated genius of pianist/arranger/composer Andrew Hill, whose "Dusk" has to be counted as a classic; and indeed the band covers a Hill tune – "Erato" – to make the master proud.

It took a couple of spins to appreciate the solos; such is the overriding group dynamic. There are some cookers: Michael Blake and Ted Nash on saxophone, bringing that Paul Desmond "dry martini sound" down into the lower register, and trombonist Clark Gayton gets a shot at burning one up, too. But it's still the group sound that sticks in the mind.

Allison penned four of the seven tunes; saxman Michael Blake wrote another, along with the aforementioned Andrew Hill tune. And of note is the band's cover of John Lennon's "Across the Universe." Beatles tunes are finding their way onto more and more jazz discs these days, but it seems it's mostly the prettier Paul McCartney melodies. With "Across the Universe," Allison and Medicine Wheel have taking the light, lilting sound of the original and turned it almost into a dirge, giving it substance, showcasing the spare loveliness of the tune.

"Buzz" should have Ben Allison in a whole bunch of those laudatory again this year.

Review by Dan McClenaghan. Dan is a writer living in Oceanside, Calif. Read his biography on his AllAboutJazz.com page.

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