The Clark Kent of Jazz: Bassist Ben Allison on His Latest, 'Layers of the City'

Photo credit: Jim Hershman courtesy of Ben Allison

Bassist and composer Ben Allison may be the most unassuming man in jazz, but his music is unique and brilliant. He talks with jazz critic Will Layman about finding his sound.

Ben Allison

Layers of the City

Label: Sonic Camera
US Release Date: 2017-06-27
UK Release Date: 2016-06-27

Bassist and composerBen Allison is the most mild-mannered man in jazz. He’s Clark Kent, not Superman: a being seemingly always calm and cool, friendly, polite, thoughtful. In conversation about his new quintet recording, Layers of the City, Allison comes off as humble and wise, like your mellow older brother, recently turned 50 but still handsome, still boyish, still even a little shy.

Yet he's also capable of transformation into Superman. Infectiously excited about music, he gets fired up when the subject turns to his heroes, his bandmates, and his ambition to get your heart involved in his art. He flies pretty high. Not sure how he feels about Kryptonite.

Layers of the City is Allison’s first recording since 2013, when he formed his own label (Sonic Camera) and released The Stars Look Very Different Today with a quartet featuring two guitars (Steve Cardenas and Brandon Seabrook) and drums (Allison Miller) in addition to his acoustic bass. “This has been the longest period in my life where I didn’t make a record,” Allison notes. “I needed some time to recharge, and so the record is a culmination of a lot of thinking. I brought cats I’d played with in the past together with whom I’ve played with recently. Maybe the fact that I’m 50 meant that it was a good time to look back.”

The Electric Bass as a Defining Element

The most immediately distinctive quality of Layers of the City is that it's Allison’s first record to feature him playing electric bass on several tracks. Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Allison started as a guitar player, and he also studied hand percussion in West African and Haitian music and played in a salsa band. This combination led him to the electric bass guitar. “The first time I picked up a bass, it seemed like the love child of the drums and the guitar -- similar to the guitar in many ways but with a percussive quality.”

Allison played only electric bass for his first year in college at NYU. "I didn’t really find my voice on it.” Switching to acoustic bass wasn’t easy. “Acoustic bass, that’s not for the faint of heart. First of all, it hurts. especially after the gig. But it sounds so cool that it’s worth the pain and effort. Not to mention that, just to get an entry level bass, it costs a couple thousand dollars. But I fell in love with it and realized I had to make it my thing.”

But not long ago, Allison had the electric thrust back into his hands when a gig in the Phillippines arose but his acoustic couldn’t make the trip. “When I picked it up, I just didn’t have my vibe on it. That took a little bit of time. I didn’t want to play publicly in New York until I felt I had a voice on it. I eventually found that, and this record grew out of finding something to say on the electric and playing tunes where, for one reason or other, you can’t really play them on the acoustic.”

Allison explains that his acoustic playing "doesn’t have as much legato -- I think of it more like a drum.” The electric, however, naturally has more sustain, more of a ringing sound. "On the first tune, 'Magic Number', I wanted that ringing, sustaining sound. It’s a very long blues in 11/8, and I wanted the electric bass to give it a suspended sound. I was thinking of Miles Davis's Filles de Kilimanjaro and of the '70s records on the CTI label that had that sound.”

His description is right on. “Magic Number” (inspired, Allison notes, by his interest in how magicians can use the flaws in human perception to fool us -- just as this tune, a blues in 11/8 time, fool us into hearing a simple groove) is languorous and smooth, with the gentlest time feeling possible. Pelt, Cardenas, and Kimbrough state the minor theme together, and Allison’s bass is simple and bell-like, locked into a rhythm feel that moves gently but insistently, emphasizing the cymbal work of drummer Allan Mednard. The comparison to the CTI records of 40 years ago extends to the production, which is clear but just a bit sugary. Pelt’s solo is lyrical like Miles Davis, and Cardenas plays with a good dose of that folk-jazz simplicity that we associate with the old Gary Burton Quartet.

Allison affirms the idea that this music builds from that particular strain of ‘60s jazz. “It grew partly out of my Easy Way Trio, which played the music of clarinetist and saxophonist Jimmy Guiffre. That music was made in the '60s, and it really was at the other extreme from the expressionistic, dense, atonal jazz of the ‘60s -- like folk music, no drums, clarinet.”

Simplicity: The Highest Calling

“Ghost Ship” has this folky quality too, with Allison’s acoustic bass stating a simple four-note arpeggio over which first piano, then guitar, then trumpet layer clear, hooky themes. The improvisations follow suit, with Pelt, in particular, keeping his playing concise and singing.

"It’s actually much harder to write music that sounds simple and catchy rather than sounding complicated,” Allison says. "As jazz musicians, we often make the mistake of making something more complicated to make it more interesting. But that is actually less interesting. So if you can create a blues in E that makes want to listen to it more than once -- that’s what I’m going for.”

“Enter the Dragon” is another tune based on a repeated bass motif, this time for the electric. The melody is more active this time, a dancing line that is quizzically offset by a piano part from Kimbrough that has him plucking strings inside the instrument and banging gorgeous low dyads that lock into the groove. The second theme is a bit more aggressive, which is no coincidence. “That’s my Donald Trump tune. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wrote it during the election cycle. I wrote it in two sections -- the first is pretty, cool, everyone’s kind of happy, and then it turns dark and all hell breaks loose. It’s the job of the band to bring it all back together, to reassemble out of all that mess.” Kimbrough’s solo takes off into ripples of atonality, with Allison and Mednard keeping pace -- presumably Allison's fears in musical form. The theme returns atop the atonality, though, and Pelt has a triumphant solo that rides atop one riff from the second, more aggressive theme. It’s simple but effective. Optimism wins the day.

Allison explains that “all the guys in my band think like composers. They are first-call cats, but they have their own style and write their own tunes.” Listening to this recording, it’s notable that the soloists rarely if ever seem to be playing fast or high or in complex ways just for the sake of it. Listen to Cardenas’s solo on “Layers of the City”. He focuses on texture, gesture, melody, and emotional expression in subtle ways. You never feel that he’s running licks together to try to blow you away.

"The people who step out as bandleaders,” Allison notes, "often are unique and have an individual vision. Lots of my idols may not be at the top of their craft in terms of traditional technique, but they have an individual voice. That was what was important to me -- having a sound that is identifiable as yours.” Clearly, this is what he looks for in the musicians for his bands.

Allison himself fits this description. "I think I’ve been able to find an individual voice as much through my composing as through how I play the bass.” Of course, one is the extension of the other, a point Allison makes as he cites Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman as heroes. "Their playing and their tunes were almost the same thing."

"I heard a story about Monk from his son, T.S. He was in his apartment and he was hitting a chord hard and then snapping it back to let it ring. His hand was like a foot and half above the keyboard and he would throw it down and then snap back. He did it over and over again, for like two hours. The family thought he was losing it. Then, later, T.S. was at a gig and he did it on the gig. He’d been practicing that. You go to Julliard and they don’t teach that shit. That is very personal, refined technique."

”Cinematic” Music

Listening to Layers of the City -- or maybe even just reading the title alone -- you can’t help but feel that this would be incredible soundtrack music. It's moody and textured. It feels like it's covering a landscape. “Get Me Offa This Thing” -- with Pelt using an echo effect on his horn and its tasty references to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew period -- could easily accompany a contemporary film noir. The track also reminds me of the music of keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and drummer Bobby Previte, two players who were playing in New York during Allison’s early days there.

"I have to admit to being not as hip to Wayne’s music as I should be, but he did just email me this morning because he’s coming to town,” Allison notes. "He was part of that Knitting Factory scene back then, and we were often crossing paths literally in the Factory, at Tonic, in the neighborhood. We are the product of the same time and place and there was cross-pollinating. He’d be upstairs, I’d be downstairs. The music was in the neighborhood."

As for the music being “cinematic”, Allison agrees. "I love music for film. For sure, my style of writing is heavily influenced by film. As I’m writing, inside my brain, I’m thinking very visually. Sometimes the music is programmatic and it actually has a story. But usually it comes after the fact and I’m not thinking of a literal story as I write. It’s more of an abstract notion -- shapes and ideas, the mood, the vibe.”

Another great example of that here is “The Detective’s Wife”, with its jaunty opening groove, a melody for Pelt’s Harmon-muted horn, and then a real feature spot for Kimbrough at his most Ellingtonian. Each soloist then takes the piece in a different direction.

Getting the Music Made in 2017

Layers of the City is one of many recent jazz recordings that was funded through internet crowd sourcing. It’s a first for Allison, who notes that he is a “late adopter” who wondered “who am I to ask for money before I’ve made anything?”

But he is fascinated by the way the process breaks down the barrier between artist and audience. “I was doing this before there was the internet with the Jazz Composer’s Collective.” Allison and the other members of the collective staged their own shows, inviting an audience through fliers, newsletters, and individual outreach. "When an audience understands what you’re doing, they can enjoy jazz more. You let the audience into the process of making the work. I wish I could invite everyone into the recording process. It’s a way to talk about the art for a long time."

Allison has been savvy about branding his music -- to the point of even designing a logo. "I don’t mind the word ‘brand'. I have a shape and graphic that is associated with my name and music. I made it in February 2012, and it helps to identify my stuff.

"There’s a famous blog post that describes 'your thousand fans’ -- the central supporters of your music, the ones who have been following you all along. Now, I don’t know how to describe my community. But I do have them. The crowd sourcing lets you connect to them more directly."

But it’s also the economics of crowd sourcing that make more sense. "Record labels tell you that almost every album loses money, and so you see your production budget slashed. When my contract was up, I had to ask myself: What does the label do?

"They fund, and they do other stuff too, but it’s not rocket science and you can do it. Because I did everything with this record, I’m committed to it and I’m in control of it. What’s hard for artists is putting up the money first. So crowd funding gets your core fans to help you realize your vision. Instead of putting all your expenses on a credit card, you have pre-sales, which put me in the black on this record before its release.”

The result is one of Allison’s most cogent and dramatic recordings. Layers of the City contains new sounds as well the Allison brand: themes that haunt you and ring in your ears for days. Your cool, composed, Clark Kent bass player doesn’t need superpowers, perhaps, because he believes in the music just that much.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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