Friend of the RJA and Artwaves host Wendy Butler recently spoke with Ben Allison about jazz, the guitar, and politics. Here’s some of what he had to say:
WB: Why did you choose the bass?
I actually started on guitar when I was a kid. In high school I also started getting interested in the drums, mostly hand drums. I studied West African music and music of the African diaspora—Haiti and Cuba and places like that. At some point I felt like I wanted to concentrate my efforts on one or the other, and it was about that time that I tried the bass for the first time, and it just clicked. It felt like the perfect marriage between drums and guitar: it’s a very rhythmic instrument, it’s got a lot of percussive aspects to it, but it’s also got the harmonic possibilities that the guitar does. Especially the acoustic bass, just because it’s even that much more expressive. There are almost endless possibilities when you’re playing acoustic music in the kinds of sounds you can get…it’s been a love affair ever since.
WB: I wanted to talk about categorizing your music as “jazz.” Is there something in particular that makes you a “jazz” musician?
[In the 1980s] there was a raging but rather futile debate about what constitutes the jazz genre, and I actually came of age as a musician during that time. There was a very strong neo-conservative movement, people were trying to categorize the music in one way or another, people were trying to lay claims to the music, claim ownership of it, and then there was an equal and opposite reaction to that. And my feeling is that if I had to pick one thing that really defined jazz, it would be improvisation and group interplay. (Well, that’s really two things…!) The improvisational aspect of it is so important and I think almost all jazz musicians would agree with that. There are certain conventions that many jazz musicians share, but I don’t think you could put your finger on any particular convention and say “that has to be part of the music.” Some people thought that swing was an essential element, and I think my new album is my first that doesn’t have one swing tune on it—and I still call myself a jazz musician.
WB: There’s a lot of guitar in your music—a lot of electric guitar. And so when I was listening to your last two albums, that made me sort of nostalgic; I was thinking about “classic rock.”
I know what you mean, and that’s the era that I grew up in: as a kid, that’s what was on the radio, that’s what I listened to. My first real strong influences were The Beatles and Zeppelin and the Who and the big stadium rock bands but also the art rock bands, and after that, New Wave and all that kind of stuff. And in the early 70s—and the 60s, for sure—guitar was king, it was the instrument. And it’s always been in my heart; I still have my AC/DC records and I play them. And all of the American and Canadian singer-songwriters… the sound of the guitar was always around. And I got to the point where I got a little bit of tunnel vision when I started delving into the history of jazz: it’s so deep, it’s so rich, there’s so much there—it’s mind-boggling, how much there is to explore. And then later in life I started getting back to some of my roots rediscovering some of that stuff, and in Steve Cardenas [the guitarist for “Man Size Safe”] I found a musician who had that history, had the same love that I had for those sounds, but also had the sensibility to really be able to improvise in a jazz context, and the sound of his guitar is just perfect for me aesthetically. And those two things really formed the impetus for this new group.
My music, especially these days, is pretty much my own particular mix of everything I’ve ever loved. I call my myself a jazz musician; I feel proud to be part of that continuum; but that’s a big word these days, and the jazz music of today—and the scene I’m involved in in New York, especially—is very inclusive of many different styles of music, and that’s part of what makes it feel exciting and fresh.
WB: Tell me about your creative process: what figures into the creation of a work?
I start usually with a collection of fragments—and those ideas come from the stage, from happy accidents where something just happens naturally through an improvisation and I say “Ah, that’s cool, that’s surprising, I’m gonna try to remember that”—I’ll even ask the musicians on stage to remember it, to remember the groove they were playing: “that pattern, it’s really interesting and I want to try to make a tune out of it.” And then I’ll assemble these fragments. Sometimes it’s just me messing around on the bass and singing, and recording all this stuff, either writing it down on paper or into a tape machine—lately I’ve been using ProTools a lot to layer up sounds—and getting what I think of as a mental scrapbook of ideas. And the next stage is just assembling them in weird ways, taking fragments from here and there and seeing what fits. And that’s a little bit of an intellectual process; it’s not as spontaneous as that first stage. It has to do with experimenting but also problem-solving: I’ve got these two totally different-sounding pieces; how are they going to work together?
WB: What motivates you to assemble different bands with different instrumentations? Is it a desire to hear a particular combination of timbres or a desire to play with specific musicians?
It’s both. Because I’m so compositionally minded I’m always thinking about timbre: with this particular group, before I even started it I thought, I want a group that’s got a trumpet and a guitar as the front line—the sound of those two instruments together. And for the guitar, mostly single-line stuff, thinking of the guitar as a horn player. So I wrote a lot of things in unison for guitar and trumpet on the Cowboy Justice album. It was just a sound I had in my head, not something I’d heard a lot of. I’d known Ron Horton, the trumpet player in this group, for many years, and we’ve always had a great musical rapport over the years in different configurations. But Steve is somebody I met just four or five years ago, heard his sound and fell in love with it and thought, This is the perfect guy for my guitar and trumpet band idea—and then I also found out that he’s just one of the nicest guys you’re ever going to meet. So yeah, it comes from that; those are the musical decisions. So many of the great bandleaders wrote music for specific musicians; they wrote for their groups: Duke Ellington certainly did, Billy Strayhorn certainly did. The musicians in their groups are so closely associated with their compositions a lot of the time: when I hear Monk I hear Charlie Rouse, when I hear Strayhorn I hear Johnny Hodges, when I hear Ornette I hear Don Cherry: their playing was really intertwined with the composition in a very deep way.
WB: Your song titles (like “Man Size Safe,” “Tricky Dick,” “Cowboy Justice”) often grow out of your interest in politics and current events.
I’ve traditionally kept my political views fairly close to the vest—it’s ironic, because my wife is a policy analyst, so I’ve got a sort of unique perspective on the world’s workings. But I think with this group—maybe it was just the time of my life or the political climate of the time when I was putting it together—it felt like a chance to verbalize a little bit. And as you’re writing music, you really are accessing something personal, and as that comes out, so do all my feelings about things, and because it’s instrumental and there’s no lyrics we have really just two places where we can say anything: one is the tune titles and the other is liner notes. And so I like to give little hints, but more as an idea to start a conversation. I rarely do that on stage; when we’re up there playing I just want to rock, I just want to have fun. Offstage, and possibly with a beer in hand, I love having spirited conversations. So yeah: the song titles are a little bit tongue in cheek, and this band does have some political overtones, but we’re really trying to draw attention to what we see as the good side of this country. We do a lot of traveling, so we’re all over the world, and we’re often in situations where people come up to us after the gig and say, “What’s going on over there?” We feel like we have to explain ourselves and I don’t really know how to explain it. So this music hopefully shows the good side of this country— people working together, the kind of group interplay that characterizes jazz—and if in any way this can be seen as some kind of cultural diplomacy, then I’m all for it.
Artwaves is an interview program showcasing visual, performing, and literary arts, primarily created in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, occasionally featuring guests of national and international renown. Interviews with educators and others whose work contribute to and have an effect on the arts community are also included. It airs Tuesdays from 1:30 to 2:00 on KHSU/KHSR, 90.5 Arcata & 91.9 Crescent City/Brookings. Wendy Butler can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.