Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel @ The Jazz Standard on Election Night, November 4, 2008

In the early evening there was a lot of tension in the air. Despite the polls predicting a landslide, the first results were less than assuring. The red state of Kentucky was going to McCain and when votes from only the southern precincts of Virginia were counted they were hugely tilted towards the Republicans. The pundit duo following the count closely on their Mac laptops and commenting on stage at regular intervals could not fully agree which way the race was going. The journalist Fred Kaplan was confident and upbeat, while NPR’s Brooke Gladstone was clearly more nervous about the outcome. I told Suzanne sitting across from me that, although as a non-citizen I couldn’t vote, I felt I had a huge stake in the election. She agreed: the whole world had a huge stake in this election.

We were at the Jazz Standard, my favourite club in New York. Apart from the pundits, the stage was occupied by Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel. This whole idea of jazz and politics on the election night was the brainchild of Ben and his wife Suzanne who is a director at the Asia Society. It had attracted a full house to this cellar club in the Murray Hill neighbourhood.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to mention that Ben and Suzanne have been my good friends for many years. Still, objectively, Ben Allison is one of the most innovative and successful contemporary jazz composers of recent years. This year he was rated highly both as composer and acoustic bass player in the prestigious Down Beat magazine critics’ poll. The equally esteemed Billboard magazine raved about his new album, Little Things Run the World: “Hands down, this bassist/composer's newest is the primo jazz release of 2008 so far and promises to stand tall as one of the year's best.” His compositions, often wrapped around a bass hook, achieve the rare combination of simple, yet novel melodies and harmonies, with steady beats accentuated with surprising twists. Don’t get me wrong: there’s no gimmickry, just plain good writing.

Ben is also a politically aware person. In fact, his current band, Man Size Safe, is sarcastically named after the outgoing (finally!) Vice-President Dick Cheney who was last year revealed by the Washington Post as having a man-sized safe in his office to prevent his papers from leaking and his sinister machinations from ending up in the National Archives.

Tonight, however, it was Ben’s old band, Medicine Wheel, which had been brought back together for the event after several years of inactivity. The frontline consisted of two of the best young saxophone players, Michael Blake and Ted Nash, with the guest addition of Jenny Scheinman on violin. A strong jazz artist in her own right, Jenny Scheinman had joined the band only for tonight. As usual, Frank Kimbrough on piano and Michael Sarin on drums completed the set-up. Referring to the theme of the evening, the leader hinted that the titles of the pieces they’d play had gained new and additional political meaning.

So the first tune, ‘Spy,’ originally referred to a club where Ben and Michael Blake used to play years ago, but today its title could be interpreted differently. The performance immediately lifted the mood in the club. Following the catchy lead theme played by the two sax men on tenors, Ted Nash made a splash with a crisp solo on his curved soprano sax. This old piece already showed Ben Allison’s sense of nuance and dynamism. After the feisty saxophone, the band quieted to a pianissimo string moment with a sweet combination of violin and bass joined by Kimbrough plucking the strings of the grand piano with his fingers.

‘Green Al’ had been originally written as a tribute to Al Green, but had lately gained other obvious connotations. The laidback tune started with the composer’s funky bass backed by Michael Sarin’s sensitive and subtle groove that created a tangible tension to the music. Against this backdrop, Michael Blake blew the lyrical melody with his lush tenor sax. Adding to the sensual mood was Jenny Scheinman’s smooth and sexy violin.

The music continued interrupted only by the updates by Gladstone and Kaplan. Next came the forceful ‘Riding the Nuclear Tiger’ (which until now has been pronounced ‘nookulear’). Then a cover of Herbie Nichols’ sweet ‘Love is Proximity’ on which Sheinman’s violin and Nash’ soprano provided a beautiful background to Blake’s tenor.

‘Blabbermouth’ showcased a sturdier side of Michael Sarin. The drummer demonstrated without any doubt that he is a master of a strong groove. This piece, like every other one heard tonight, also highlighted the remarkable orchestration skills of Ben Allison. With only two saxophones, violin and the rhythm section he created such harmonies that the listener would think that there was a large orchestra on stage.

At this time of the evening, the mood was reaching the ceiling and glasses were raised to cheers. Not only was the music extraordinary, the reports of the election results were becoming increasingly hopeful. After all, we wouldn’t have to wait until late night before the real celebrations could start. There would be historic change!

No comments: