What IS Jazz? This is one of those questions that inevitably comes up whenever you get a few Jazz fans together. No one ever asks ‘What is Rock?’ or ‘What is Folk?’ I mean I guess they do, but it hasn’t become a catch phrase like ‘What is Jazz?’ Sometimes it’s an innocent question from a new listener so you have to be careful to consider the source. Jazz needs all the new listeners it can get so there’s no need to go all Jazz Snob on the new guy.
I prefer not to get into a debate about the question and answer simply with, ‘Jazz is who you are.’ There’s really no other music that’s so full of self expression…Self being the operative word here. This is not a Band or something Commercial this is YOU up there on stage or on record laying your emotions bare for everyone to see. It is one of the only art forms in the World that you can watch being created right before your eyes.
Contemporary Jazz musicians, that is Contemporary as in current not as in ‘stay tuned for your local forecast,’ have a huge history of music to draw upon. Most can rattle off their influences and you will hear a lot of the usual suspects: Monk, Powell, Coltrane, etc. but don’t forget that there’s a lot more out there to hear and be influenced by. One of my favorite examples of this is Pat Metheny. People criticized him for the way he sounded, but he made no excuses and replied (and I’m paraphrasing), ‘look I’m a white guy from Missouri who grew up listening to the Beatles…I’m not going to sound like your typical New York City Jazz guy.’ Jazz is who you are.
Enter bassist composer Ben Allison. Like most musician/composers Ben is a lifelong music fan and like most of them he can’t help but listen to music and think what he might have done with a particular song. Hence this new album of mostly covers. Each song is given a unique twist while remaining true enough to the original that you’ll recognize it.
There’s something for everyone here from classic Jazz with a rendition of Monk’s ‘Jackie-ing’ to alternative pop PJ Harvey’s ‘Missed’, soul Donnie Hathaway’s ‘Some Day We’ll All Be Free’ and classical with Samuel Barber’s ‘St. Ita’s Vision.’ A record like this is a great way to introduce someone to Jazz because it gives them a reference point. It can be difficult to interest someone who only listens to pop music to dive into a swinging Jazz quintet playing some Hard Bop.
Saxophonist (and bass clarinetist) Michael Blake has the difficult (challenging?) task of becoming the vocalist for several of these tunes and does such a good job that you forget they ever had lyrics. The other instrumentation while keeping one foot in the Jazz World also babbles and gurgles just beneath the surface adding unexpected textures with analog synths and guitar loops. Ben’s music can be listened to as Jazzy Pop or Poppy Jazz in almost equal measure. If it does its job it should introduce PJ Harvey fans to Monk and vice-versa and in my mind you can’t ask for anything better than that.
Listen to PJ Harvey’s version of ‘Missed’ if you’re not already familiar with it and then go to Ben’s site and listen to his version. I think you’ll love what he does.
For Ben’s back catalog and lots more great music be sure to check out Palmetto Records.
Action-Refraction Personnel and Track Listing:
Michael Blake – tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Jason Lindner – Prophet 08 analog synthesizer, piano
Steve Cardenas – guitar
Brandon Seabrook – guitar (tracks 3, 7)
Ben Allison – bass
Rudy Royston – drums
- Jackie-ing (Thelonious Monk)
- Missed (PJ Harvey)
- Some Day We’ll All Be Free (Donny Hathaway)
- Philadelphia (Neil Young)
- St Ita’s Vision (Samuel Barber)
- We’ve Only Just Begun (Paul Williams, Roger Nichols)
- Broken (Ben Allison)