Bassist Ben Allison is one of jazz’s best “glue guys,” a versatile musician’s musician whose presence in the liner notes enlivens practically anyone’s recording. But it’s as a composer and bandleader where his idiosyncratic musicianship truly shines. Allison has been banging around a good while at this point, with a resume that includes numerous awards (seven SESAC Performance Awards) and notable citations in places like DownBeat Magazine’s Readers and Critic’s poll. (He even composed the theme for WNYC’s program On The Media.)
But for me, it was Allison’s 2011 record Action-Refraction that truly opened my ears to what he was doing. That record mixed originals with a few covers -- including PJ Harvey’s “Missed” -- to make a superb genre-mashup that really worked. The Stars Look Very Different Today, Allison's latest, continues that feeling, but pushes his music into, well, the stratosphere.
With a title borrowed from a line in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the album’s new songs function as something of a concept record inspired by space, classic sci-fi films, and the intersection of music, technology and science. It sounds like a heady experiment, sure, but these works remain grounded in memorable and twisty melodies, in-the-pocket grooves, and plenty of glitchy electronic noises all chirping, pulsating, and bursting around the periphery.
The first track, “D.A.V.E. (Digital Awareness Vector Emulator),” is a bold opening statement that makes best use of these sonic textures and sound collage elements amid Allison’s strummed bass pattern (played with a folded NYC subway card), Allison Miller’s propulsive drumming, and the twin squelching distorted guitars of Brandon Seabrook and Steve Cardenas.
The composition, which was debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2012, references a human character in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And in the right setting, it’s easy to envision this exceptional song -- and album for that matter -- played in concert as an alternate cosmic post-rock score to some dystopian sci-fi flick. I’d certainly watch that.
Listen "D.A.V.E." above and for more information, check out the album's trailer below:
We reached out to Ben Allison via e-mail, and asked him to reflect on the song and the unifying scientific theme behind the music:
"D.A.V.E." stands for Digital Awareness Vector Emulator. It's about imagining the "mindset" of a machine as it becomes sentient. There's logic and pattern recognition as usual. But now there's also the randomness of emotion, as modeled by an artificial neural network. The title references a human character from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey who confronts HAL, a machine that "thinks."
Since I was a child I've been fascinated by science and technology. I chose to be a musician instead of a scientist but I think it could have just as easily gone the other way. Scientists and musicians are similar in the sense that we work on the ragged edge of what we know and what we don't know, pushing that boundary ever-outward.
How do musicians improvise, giving each other subtle cues in real time? How do we have a conversation without words and experience the music a few seconds in the future, anticipating what we think is coming next, all while our fingers carry out past "orders?"
There are a lot of mysteries in music-making. I'm not afraid of not knowing the answers, only of not asking the questions.
Ben Allison's new record The Stars Look Very Different Today is out Dec. 3 on Sonic Camera Records. He'll be playing a CD release party that night at Joe's Pub.