Ben Allison – Layers of the City

REVIEW: Ben Allison - Layers of the City

Ben Allison – Layers of the City (Sonic Camera)

Bassist-composer Ben Allison has a lovely sense of melody and a sly imagination that makes his music unfailingly lyrical, but full of quirks. And that certainly holds true on Layers of the City, the bassist’s 12th album as a leader and second on his own Sonic Camera imprint. On “Enter the Dragon,” for instance, Allison undergirds a searching melody of oddly displaced notes with a double-time bass line, resolves the resulting tensions with a soaring climax, then shifts gears into free jazz for pianist Frank Kimbrough’s solo. The title track see-saws between lickety-split Brazilian jazz and swampy rock beats, setting up guitarist Steve Cardenas’ full-toned, languid solo over a racing tempo.

No matter where the compositions or solos travel, Allison himself rarely resorts to predictable or expected bass lines. On “The Detective’s Wife,” for example, he never merely keeps time and marks out the changes, but fully engages with each soloist, creatively breaking up time to inspire Kimbrough and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, or offering contrapuntal lines that set off what’s going on around him.

Allison also knows the value of surrounding himself with like-minded collaborators, in this case, the longtime associates who make up his Think Free band. Pelt’s luminous tone, alertness and knack for the telling phrase suit the music to a T; his vulnerable, poetic solo on “Ghost Ship” is among the album’s highlights. Drummer Allan Mednard handles rhythmic modulations seamlessly, holding the band together even when there’s so much going on around him. Like so many of Allison’s previous releases, this one is consistently engaging and surprising, not unlike the metropolis that inspired it — his hometown of New York City, with its contrasting layers of grime and gleam, grit and dazzle.

Ed Hazell

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