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Medicine Wheel by Ben Allison

Medicine Wheel is a beautiful melange, a kaleidoscope, shifting from color to color, from impressions to grooves and back again. Its overall mood is dark, though not necessarily somber: the currents of sound are like a deep river, whose eddies reflect light playfully while suggesting underlying layers of power, heat and motion.

The CD's title is taken from the Plains Indians' symbol representing the universe: a perception of all things related, existing at different points along the great wheel. Ben Allison describes it as "a mirror in which the universe is reflected," and adds that "any idea, person or object can be such a mirror." His music uses the idiom of jazz and improvisation as a dancing, living reflection of his own world.

There is a vastly experimental aspect to this music. Is it about a groove, or about an impression? Like watercolor washes of mood, one form can be dimly perceived through another. This is not dissonant or jarring to the ear - while the compositions are accessible in their melodicism, the notes are secondary to the intent behind them.

The stretch new ground is a pleasant exercise for the listener, and (one assumes) for the musicians as well. Open piano strings roar like thunder; the trumpet calls in the keening voice of a whale. On the tune "Buzz", Allison, having woven paper in-between the strings of his bass, creates an effect something like the noise of a Junebug flying into a screen door. "Blabbermouth" has an intentional wobble to it when the groove is reintroduced, like someone playing with the RPMs on their turntable. And what I could have sworn was a Japanese Gamelan is actually Frank Kimbraugh playing a piano with pennies placed between the strings. Sometimes frenetic, sometimes meditative, Allison's compositions always provoke a visceral response.

Ben Allison, the creator, or inventor, of the music on Medicine Wheel, took his inspiration from a wide variety of unconventional sources. In my humble opinion, this is a healthy trend for jazz, which tends to focus on trying to reproduce sounds from within its own history and whose devotees often act as disciples of an earlier musical personality. Introspection within the genre is good up to a point; but Allison and his cohorts do not get caught up in navel-gazing - these guys have obviously been burning their incense in front of the right altars. The more straight-ahead tracks prove that everyone's done their homework. "Apostles of the Ugly", for instance, is a truly gorgeous tear-your-heart-out ballad, inspired by the painter Jean Auguste Ingres and the music of Alban Berg.

More often, though, the music is afloat on different byways. Read the words which Allison himself used to describe the tracks - "an improvised collage" - "the groove [on 'Quirky Dungeon'].... makes me think of being down in the Bat Cave" - "a song about seduction" - "[a song] about timbre" - "an urban symphony of noise and sound."

The young bassist and leader Ben Allison has earned my sincere respect. Medicine Wheel is the first recording which has truly made a connection for me between the "old school" of straight-ahead jazz, and the (relatively) "new school" of free, experimental playing. Allison's voice is both strong and unique: with this collection of his original material, he succeeds in unleashing a torrent of creative energy from his fellow players, and then in harnessing that energy to form a coherent whole. Kudos!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ben Allison
  • CD Title: Medicine Wheel
  • Year Released: 1998
  • Record Label: Palmetto Records
  • Musicians: Ben Allison (bass); Michael Blake (saxes); Ted Nash (saxes, flute); Tomas Ulrich (cello); Jeff Ballard (drums); Frank Kimbraugh (piano, prepared piano); Ron Horton, (trumpet, flugelhorn)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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