Monday, May 01, 2006

Ben Allison - Cowboy Justice (Palmetto, 2006)

Bassist, composer and Jazz Composers Collective leader Ben Allison is one of the most politically aware of modern musicians, a news junkie who composed the theme for NPR's watchdog show "On the Media," he's occasionally written compositions reflecting current events. This album reflects his displeasure with the current American administration with a suite like album of instrumental protest music, where he's joined by Ron Horton on trumpet, Steve Cardenas on guitar and Jeff Ballard on drums. "Talking Heads" sets up an interesting guitar percussion groove by having Cardenas hit the strings with a wooden doll. The resulting sound is almost like some type of African stringed instrument like those Allison used on his Peace Pipe album. "Hey Man" brings a start-stop feel to a tribute to another politically aware bassist, Charlie Haden. "Emergency" really brings the quartet's energy to bear at full force. Unhinged drumming and pulsating bass drive electric guitar and fanfare trumpet into a potent statement.

Horton (my favorite trumpet player of recent vintage) gets a gorgeous solo over the theme of "Midnight Cowboy" which is taken at a spacious mid-tempo. Hollywood should give Terence Blanchard a rest and call Ron Horton up for some film scoring, as he's more than up to the task. The quartet's version of an earlier Allison composition, "Weazy" sounds like a homage to the music Bill Frisell made with trumpeter Ron Miles in the mid 1990's with the open folkish melody and restrained soloing. "Ruby's Roundabout" is a haunting and moving tune written for his daughter - Allison plays acoustic guitar instead of bass and Ballard plays the most gentle of percussive beats including a baby rattle. Horton solos majestically over it all with a somber, yet hopeful tone. "Blabbermouth" finishes the record with an unleashed Jeff Ballard providing some wonderfully intense drumming. Like many of Allison's studio albums, there's a "chamber jazz" feel to this record. It doesn't distract from the music at all, in fact it forces the listener to concentrate even more closely on the improvisations and the compositional structure of the music. It would be great to see this band live to see how they stretch and tug these songs in live performance. This is a wonderful record and is highly recommended.

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