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A Turn to Simplicity for a Progressive Jazz Composer

Ben Allison is one of the hardest working men in jazz.

During the past 15 years, the 41-year-old bass player and composer has released eight records, led four bands, founded a composer's collective, run his own venue and published a jazz newsletter. Along the way, he's collected awards, praise from critics and a modest income.

Allison's latest efforts to broaden his audience are collected on Little Things Run The World, his new album with his new band. He says he tried to write simple music with simple beats — although performing those tunes is not as easy as it sounds.

"You'd be surprised how hard it is for some jazz musicians to deal with a simple beat," Allison says. "They want to augment it and modify it and get tricky with it, rather than keep it simple."

Allison combines subtle harmonies with spare melodies, then flavors the compositions with electric guitar and pronounced beats. He says the bass vamp on the title track of Little Things Run the World was inspired by Led Zeppelin.

"That's what I grew up listening to," Allison says. "You know, it's hard to hear 'Good Times Bad Times' — any kind of Led Zeppelin — without hearing 'Bahm Bahm' [vocalizes]. You know, that's part of my history, part of my youth."

Allison was raised in New Haven, Conn., where his father was a psychoanalyst, his mother an English teacher. Like most kids born in 1966, he grew up listening to rock music. Then he discovered jazz.

"When I got into jazz and started really pursuing that — it's such a deep music ... but in the process I kind of distanced myself from my roots that way. And the older I get, the more I feel I want to get back to it. And it's just so much fun to rock," Allison says.

Though you can't really call it rock, Allison's new album was mixed like a rock record, says Matt Balitsaris, who engineered it. Balitsaris owns Palmetto Records, the independent label that also releases music by other young jazz composers, such as Ted Nash and Frank Kimbrough, along with the challenging music of the late Andrew Hill.

Balitsaris says the label's mission is to support jazz musicians whose work exists in the context of today's culture.

"One of the messages that's constantly out there in the world is that jazz is something that already happened," he says. "It started, and it ended, and everybody now is just a caretaker of this tradition. You know, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as long as people are making jazz records that sound like they were made in the '60s."

Allison comes out of New York's progressive jazz scene. For a dozen years, he co-directed the Jazz Composers Collective, a group dedicated to promoting new music that might otherwise have had a hard time reaching an audience.

With his new band, Allison says, he's getting back to his musical beginnings, though he's not going back to the electric bass. The only instrument in his Greenwich Village living room is a Prescott upright double bass.

"Well, I started on electric bass way back in the day," Allison says. "But the first time I heard the acoustic bass, what knocked me out about it was the amount of sounds you can get out of it." He offers a demonstration. "There's a lot of — not just information, but a lot of emotional content to all of those other sounds. All of the slurs, all the squeaks, all the buzzes — you know, I want to really have that be a part of my music."

Allison's seven previous records have all been hits with critics. But his sales are a tiny fraction of what a pop artist would bring in.

"For a jazz record — for any jazz record — if we sell over 10,000, we're all going out to lunch," Balitsaris says.

Allison says lunch isn't the only reward.

"All the people that listen to my music, by and large, have either heard us live, or found us, or come to us, or someone said, 'Oh, you've got to check this out,' and it's real personal," Allison says. "And that — that kind of makes up for all of the petty frustrations that you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis."

In the business of jazz, Allison says, if you don't keep changing, you're done. His new record comes out Jan. 22.

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Tom Vitale