Ben Allison: Moments Inside
The New Haven born native has released a consistently high level of solo albums on various labels since his Seven Arrows release on Palmetto Records in 1996. After ten albums for that outfit, he comes now with his fourth album, Moments Inside on his ownSonic Camera Records. Recorded in high-resolution 24/96k, and it sounds magnificent. The album title is significant— “I wrote it while I was stuck inside but was looking toward the future.”
The album consists of eight tracks that will mellow you out and lift your spirits at the same time, with great performances delivered by great players. Allison performs multiple roles as acoustic and electric bassist, composer, sound mixer, and producer; Allan Mednard is on drums; Chico Pinheiro performs on acoustic and electric guitars; long-time collaborator Steve Cardenas plays acoustic and electric guitars [Steve is in the left speaker, Chico’s on the right. BTW, Steve grew up in KC] Ben says the two of them are the primary reason for the album’s existence. “That's what inspired me to write this music—they come from different places, sonically speaking, but they share a love of melody and lyricism, and it’s clear they really love playing together.”
The title of the first track,Safe Passage came from Ben’s personal experience. “I was thinking of the storm of the pandemic and what it felt like as a musician to re-emerge after 18 months and get together with colleagues and create something new.” The piece starts pensively—a soft, warm sound from Allison, with light brushes from Mednard, while the two guitars remind me of Metheny and Scofield, only here it’s a bit lighter, brighter, easier. The solos sound effortless, smooth like running water. “This was the first tune I wrote with this project in mind,” says Allison. He adds, “one of the things that I love about Brazilian music is that Brazilian musicians tend to—not always, but a lot of times—write very beautiful lyrical music, even as they're talking about tragic things.”
The Chasehas a smooth groove, with a featured drum solo that is absolute mesmerizing, hypnotic in its simplicity and repetitiveness. “At the end of that track, we are all feeding off each other's ideas. Everybody blowing and chasing each other's ideas.” The drum sound is particularly unique. “I asked him [Allan] to put t-shirts on all of his drums or mute them,” Ben says.
Milton, featuring a modified baiao pattern, is a definitive nod to Milton Nascimento, one of the great singers and composers in the Brazilian pop music tradition.Theintrospective melody features Cardenas whose sound is so clean and crisp, with a rounded tone and notes that speak articulately, shaped with direction and purpose.He’s followed by nylon string of Pinheiro.
Voyage of the Nautilus is a pensive tune in 5/4, a sultry groove set in Ab minor, with a percolating solo. The tune has an ECM quality to it. Allan Mednard cruises smoothly through the turns. “I’ve always been a fan of those CTI albums from the 70s. They had a very distinctive sound, and the musicians of that era approached their music from so many different angles. With Voyage of the Nautilus, I wanted specifically to reference this era and sound. Some might call it fusion. But, for me it’s just great music. After all, isn’t all music ‘fusion music?’ Everything that’s ever been played is a combination of all that has come before, the result of joining things together to make something new.”
A Child Sings in Stone has very personal meaning to Ben—the title itself comes from an e.e. cummings poem. “The song is an elegy,” Ben says. “I watched the Memorial for (slain Minneapolis youth) Daunte Wright, and I heard the parents talking about their boy; I heard the dad talking about his boy, the wretched pain in his voice…and you know, it was hard to watch, as a parent, hard to process that…and I wrote this to try to reflect what I was feeling.” The piece is a slow and gentle ballad in 4/4 (reminds me very much of what Metheny and bassist Charlie Haden did on (their duo album,) Beneath the Missouri Sky. Both Cardenas and Pinheiro play nylon strings on this one, tossing the melody back and forth. When I mentioned Metheny’s influence on Cardenas, Ben says, “Yeah, well Steve is from the Midwest, you know, he's from KC—that area of the world. His playing is so soulful and full of melody. There's a simple beauty to his playing, you know…and it's not overly ornate.”
Breakfast With Eric is maybe my favorite tune on the album because it’s such a cool, quirky song that dances between the two guitar players who are having a delightful dialog. It’s an up-tempo altered blues progression in 6/8. The melody is angular, yet catchy. The back-and-forth chases between Cardenas and Pinheiro is some of the tastiest blues guitar duo exchanges you will hear anywhere. It’s immediately followed by acoustic bass solo and a rhythmically manipulative drum solo from Allan Mednard. What about that title, though? “We were at a festival in Pacific Northwest. I told the audience that I'd just written it and I was looking for a title. And I told them that the sound of it to my mind was referencing Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch album. And so I just threw that out to the audience: ‘If anybody has any ideas for titles, let me know.’ We played the tune and then afterwards, somebody just yelled ‘Breakfast with Eric!’ In other words, out to lunch, right? Exactly…and, I thought, ‘you know what? That's it—that's perfect.’”
House Party Starting is by pianist Herbie Nichols, and the only song on the disc not penned by Allison. He first heard the tune during his participation in the Jazz Composers Collective “Frank Kimbrough started bringing in these tunes that he had transcribed off of the Herbie Nichols records—he had heard them because he taped them off of WKCR, a local radio station in New York.” They take the original arrangement of Herbie’s tune and turn it into a medium-speed mellow bossa-inspired tune. It works extremely well, and it makes one wonder why no one had thought of it before.
The Great Sandero a tune that obviously feels like it’s in 12/8, but Allison has other thoughts about it. “I tend to write things with these kinds of fundamental rhythmic units, and then there are subdivisions. So, I tend not to write in time signatures like 12/8. In fact, I don't even write in key signatures anymore, man. I'm kind of over key signatures.” The tune simmers at a low heat, with the Cardenas sounding so tasty, while Mednard has some of the best drum work on the entire album.
When I suggested to Ben that the album feels like there were little or no overdubs, he immediately perks up. “You're right to say that there are very few—if any—overdubs. there're really just complete takes because, you know, I don't really have time for that on most of my records. They're just what comes out in the moment.
The music was recorded on June 23-24 at Maggie’s Farm by engineer Matt Balitsaris in November 2021 at the height of the pandemic, “when we were all separated and not able to play together and feeling isolated [laughs], you know, and not getting to do what we do as musicians, which is to get together and play,” said Allison during my interview with him. “I was expecting the music I was writing to explore the pain, anger and sorrow that was all around. I was surprised to find that I didn’t. The music that emerged was optimistic and peaceful. In retrospect, I wasn’t writing what I was feeling. Instead, I was writing what I needed.”
Ben mixed and mastered the Sonic Camera Records project. It feels like a guitar album, but it’s not—and yet it actually is. His previous three albums on this label (The Stars Look Very Different Today (2013) Layers of the City (2017) and 2018’s Quiet Revolution) deserve revisiting based on the high level of musical sensitivity and sheer beauty on this disc—I highly recommend it.