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No April Fools, Hear

As anyone that’s closely followed the fertile NYC jazz scene—especially the “sub-scene” affectionately referred to as the “Downtown sound”—over the past five to 15 years or so knows, there’s a LOT of (relatively) young creative talent thriving there. “So what,” snorts your Inner Monologue, “New York is always awash in burgeoning talents—that’s why it’s the Big Apple.” True, but I refer to the lads and lasses of more recent generations, players and singers that happily and unashamedly embrace influences well beyond jazz and the Great American Songbook. Oh, many of the can play standards and the bebop changes with the best of them—it’s just that they just refuse to be hemmed-in by a narrow definition of what’s supposed to be jazz. They play jazz that been marked by years of listening to hip-hop, rock, funk, classical music (“traditional” and post-1950s), Americana, and whatever. I speak of such swells as Josh Roseman, Chris Speed, Jim Black, Cuong Vu, Mary Halvorson, Donny McCaslin, and Ben Allison.

Acoustic bassist Ben Allison brought his band to Chicago: Rudy Royston, drums, Michael Blake, tenor saxophone, and Steve Cardenas, electric guitar. The Ben Allison Band is truly a modern jazz ensemble, one of today, not of any (idealized) era. The Ben Allison Band plays a brand of jazz I can only (and proudly) submit as “Americana” jazz—it’s post-bop that swings but the melodies and motifs therein come out of not of the Parker/Rollins/Coltrane continuum. These gents grew up listening to Sly & the Family Stone, the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Marvin Gaye, and Neil Young along with Miles, Albert Ayler, and Charles Mingus. Ben Allison’s compositions—the band played nearly all originals by Allison or band-members—are stalwartly groove- and melodic hook-oriented (like great rock, pop, or R&B songs are)—there are real tunes here (as opposed to simple frameworks for “blowing”) that leave plenty of room for individual expression. And express they did…

Allison reminds me of Charlie Haden and Richard Davis—not that he “sounds like” them exactly, but his approach is similar. Rock-solid yet buoyant, flexible, nimble, with a distinctive, assertive tone—that’s our Ben. Steve Cardenas is a rarity among young-ish jazz guitarists [sarcasm alert] in that he doesn’t evoke Pat Metheny or Bill Frisell—well, hardly at all. Cardenas plays with a thick, velvety cushiony texture to his playing that recalls Kenny Burrell, and his playing also courses with blues/country/rock riffs from Neil Young and the Band’s Robbie Robertson. (My friend noted that Cardenas’ six-string axe sounded at times like a Hammond organ…and it did, actually.) Rudy Royston is a fabulous drummer, laying down propulsive swing and rhythmic accents that buoyed not just the band but the music as a whole. Blake (known for his own bands as well as a long stint in the now-RIP Lounge Lizards) is a joy. His tenor is a hearty synthesis of Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane (naturally), and King Curtis—full-bodied, steely, bright, surging, a bit breathy, tender but never overly sweet. The Ben Allison Band played wonderfully as a unit—all got to shine but no one hogged the spotlight or engaged in mind-numbing meandering. As the old show-biz adage goes, the Ben Allison Band held the crowd in the palm of their collective hand.

Yeah, the place was packed…the place being Chicago’s Green Mill, one of the oldest bars in Chicago (legend has it that Al Capone, the John Gotti of his day, hung out there lots) and in the USA. It has plenty of old-school (as in early twentieth-century rococo décor), reasonably priced beverages, polite staff, and management that guarantees a quality listening experience. The latter means they insist their patrons maintain a respectful level of conversational volume while the band is playing…which means any rowdy, bellowing jerk will be unceremoniously ejected. The sound quality is always excellent and the cover charge rarely exceeds $12-15. The Green Mill is definitely one of the best places to hear jazz in this Windy City.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ben Allison Band
  • Subtitle: Ben Allison Band holds court at a packed house in Chicago
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