An interview with Ben Allison: Music is about more than notes, it’s also about community and values: Videos

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Jazz interview with jazz contrabassist Ben Allison. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Ben Allison: – I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, which is a very culturally diverse city. Some of my first experiences as a musician were playing in a Salsa band. I was probably 16, and the rest of the band members were in their 40s. I think they wanted me in the band mostly because I could transcribe tunes from records and write out simple charts.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the contrabass?

BA: – I started on guitar, and then played some drums in high school. The acoustic bass felt like a combination of the two.

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the contrabass?

BA: – I’ve had some great teachers over the years. Pianist/composer Bill Brown was an important early influence. When I moved to New York, I studied with Joe Lovano. He said, “I don’t want to teach you what to play, I want to teach you how to play.” His approach was very inspiring and liberating. I studied composition with Jim McNeely and bass with Steve LaSpina, Abdul Malik, and Dennis Irwin.  I learned a lot from each of them.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

BA: – I have an unusual technique with my right hand, where I kind of hook my first finger around the strings and pull up a little as I play. It’s something I’ve developed over time, through experimentation. Sometimes people tease me and call it “the claw.” In one sense, it’s limiting. I don’t play as many notes as some other bass players. This technique has forced me to be economical with my ideas.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

BA: – I think one of the best ways to work on your musicality is to write a new tune. Composing is just like improvising but with an edit button. I usually start by letting ideas flow freely, without thinking too much. It’s important not to be self-critical at this point. In order to be creative, you have to allow yourself to make mistakes. But being an artist means knowing which mistakes to keep. So, it’s important to revisit your ideas, modify them, play with them, maybe even throw some away. But save the best ones.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

BA: – All of them. Haha 🙂

JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album: Layers of the City?

BA: – Layers of the City is my most personal album to date. I wrote and arranged the music, , produced and mixed the album, even created the cover and album design. It’s a full and true statement of my point of view, musically, sonically and visually. The musicians are amazing. Everyone brought their A-game. The band includes Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Frank Kimbrough (piano), and Allan Mednard (drums).

Being an independent artist with my own record label gives me unlimited freedom to produce albums the way I want to.  This is my 12th release and I’ve poured my heart into every record I’ve made. But the most gratifying part of making this one was being able to share the process with my audience — from the first moments of writing the tunes, through to the final steps of mastering and manufacturing. We did this through a crowd-funding site. The project was financed mostly through pre-sales of CDs and vinyl, plus some support from what I call ‘super-fans.” Crowd-funding has become an important way for many artists to make records and connect with their audiences. More and more well-established artists are doing it this way.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

BA: – It’s hard to give general advice, because everyone travels a different road. But, as an artist you have to be in it for the long haul. Everyone has ups and downs but it’s important to keep looking forward, to keep challenging yourself.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

BA: – Yes, sure it can. The good news is that people love listening to music and people love making music. But, we need to continue to finds ways to build and maintain a sustainable eco-system for music — where creators, producers and consumers all benefit. Technology is a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. It has made things better and it has made things worse.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

BA: – In a lot of ways, jazz is still music of defiance. It’s not pop music, but it has its audience, at least in New York. What jazz lacks is strong youth culture. When I see younger people in the audience, they’re often jazz musicians themselves. Music is about more than notes, it’s also about community and values. The best jazz celebrates individualism, takes risks, and is deeply personal. I think these are ideas that younger people can relate to. But it’s ultimately up to the next wave of jazz musicians to make the music relevant to their generation.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

BA: – I don’t think the universe has any inherent meaning. It’s up to us to create our own meaning. That’s not a bad thing. Nor, does it diminish life. In fact, I’m amazed and awed by the beauty of the natural world. I’m also awed by the music of great artists like John Coltrane. His music is a triumph of human intelligence, passion and creativity.  It fills me up, even as it reminds me of what we all have in common. As far as we know, the human brain is the most complex system in the universe. And music is one of its most glorious products.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

BA: – I fear stagnation. I fear being stuck in a rut. I fear the top of the bell curve. But I also know that fear is the creativity killer. I’m an optimist, basically.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

BA: – I just joined the BMI Composers Workshop and am working on some arrangements of my music for big band. I’m learning a lot and enjoying the process. In April, 2018 all of my albums for Palmetto Records (ten , in all) revert to me. So, I’m thinking about how best to re-release them.  Any ideas?

Also, I would love to come back to Yerevan. Did you know that I performed there in the 1990s with the singer Datevik Havanesian? It was a tour put together by the producer George Avakian.  We had a great time. Beautiful city and people.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

BA: – Jazz is world music, now.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

BA: – Like most musicians I know, I like a very wide variety of music. I just got hip to pianist/composer Matt Mitchell and have been listening to his music. Also, Kamasi Washington. And, I pulled an old record off my shelf last week that I haven’t listened to in a while — Batacumbele, Con un Poco de Songo. Amazing.  I want to learn more about Flamenco music.

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

BA: – My bass was made by Abraham Prescott in Concord, New Hampshire in 1840. I use Velvet Anima G and D strings, and Spirocores for A and E. I like the Audio Technica Pro 35 condenser mic. Most of my amps are by Aguilar. I also love my 1965 Ampeg B15, especially with my 1980 Precision.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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