Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
At the Millenial Territory Orchestra’s rocking Lake George show a couple of weeks ago, MTO leader Steven Bernstein talked about “the true jazz experience” – which, as Bernstein defined it, was “doing something we don’t quite know!” Ben Allison was the bass player on that date, and two weeks later, he demonstrated Bernstein’s definition in a Planet Arts Jazz one2one concert at the Athens Cultural Center, where Allison debuted his latest endeavor: The Jim Hall Project.
This isn’t the first time Allison has explored the work of an artist from another generation. During Jazz one2one’s latest, lively-as-always pre-show Q&A, Allison spoke reverently about his earlier examination of the late pianist Herbie Nichols – an examination that will be momentarily revived this November during the Jazz Composers Collective’s 20th-anniversary festival at the NYC club Jazz Standard. But here’s the thing: Allison is one of the most prolific (and one of the most interesting) composers in the genre today, so he doesn’t have to use other people’s music to flesh out whatever he’s doing at the time. However, to listen to Allison talk about Jim Hall (a hollow-body guitar icon with 60 years of recordings, as both leader and sideman) was to listen to someone who’d found out he was also examining himself.
Allison was introduced to Hall’s music through Steve LaSpina, Allison’s bass teacher at NYU and a Hall sideman who would bring some of Hall’s new material into class. Years later, Allison found Hall had more influence on Allison’s own writing style than he thought. “Things I’d thought I came up with, he’d come up with!” Allison correctly called Hall’s music “chamber jazz — lots of interaction, lots of comedy! ‘Quirky’ is a word I like, because it’s got a lot of humor, a lot of playfulness.” Hall is still tearing it up in his 80’s, which Allison spoke about in wonder. “He’s still got that restless, experimental spirit.” Allison added that, while he and Hall aren’t well acquainted, “We live in the same neighborhood, and we buy coffee from the same people!”
It wasn’t surprising to hear Allison speak well of Hall: It’s Allison’s project, after all. But Allison’s partners on this effort – guitarist/longtime co-conspirator Steve Cardenas and tenorman Ted Nash – hold opinions of Hall that are just as strong, and just as positive. Cardenas discovered Hall through the 1975 album Jim Hall Live, and “It’s gotten to the point where I’m more amazed, and more mesmerized. It never stops!” For a teenaged Nash, “Jim Hall seemed kind of ‘calm’ to me, and I didn’t want ‘calm’ at that age!” The lightbulb lit for Nash when he heard Undercurrent, a 1962 duet album Hall recorded with Bill Evans, and Nash’s opinion of the guitarist grew exponentially when he appeared onstage with Hall a few years ago. “He doesn’t have to prove anything,” Nash told us, respect coursing through his voice. “He just plays!”
Now, when I said this show was the “debut” of the Jim Hall Project, I meant that in the purest of terms: This was the first time Allison and his partners had ever played these arrangements in front of an audience, and to say they were completely familiar with the material would be lying. “We got charts, and we don’t know what our set list is,” Allison told us, adding wryly, “Just the way we like it.” At one point, Allison was introducing a piece called “What’s New,” which was “a new tune based on an old tune” that wasn’t the Bob Haggart/Johnny Burke ballad “What’s New.”
“You’ll figure it out,” a grinning Cardenas assured us.
Nash cracked, “I hope I figure it out!”
Needless to say, the trio relied heavily on Allison’s written arrangements – which was a problem, as there were only two music stands for three people; Allison had to balance his charts on something that looked like a cross between a baby bar stool and a punishment chair. (“I have a four-page chart,” Allison dryly commented at one point, “and a one-page stand!”) As the trio was wrapping up a stem-winding version of Jimmy Giuffre’s “Pony Express,” Cardenas’ chart fell off his music stand. Immediately, Cardenas bent his knees, hunched over and finished the piece while reading the chart from its place on the floor. Good thing the chart landed right side up!
This and other chart-related incidents generated much laughter, but no more so than with the trio itself. Maybe they weren’t laser-locked into the arrangements, but the fact was that these guys were having big fun with this music. You could hear them react to both the quality and the whimsy in Hall’s music, whether they were cranking out the blues-laced “Careful,” the playful “Bimini” or the taut closer “Two’s Blues.” The lovely ballad “All Across the City” not only embodied all the subtlety that sets Hall apart from other jazz guitarists, but it had a loving, personal quality that crossed over from romance to outright tenderness. A young couple was sitting in the far corner of ACC’s gallery space, and during “City,” the woman smiled and put her head on the man’s shoulder. “There it is,” I thought to myself.
Allison’s expression during his solos had an intensity you usually see on the face of rock musicians – not surprising, since Allison started out as a rocker before he came over to the jazz side. But that intensity gives his sound a muscular quality you don’t hear in most bass players, and his hard-charging attack on “Careful” got many approving sounds from his partners. Cardenas’ overall approach embodied everything I love about Hall’s music, in that it’s little course corrections that make the most difference in an elegant-yet-experimental sound that has you flying through space before you even realize it. Nash was on point all night, with inventive solos that had a tone as rich as devil’s food cake. But on “Pony” and “The Train and the River,” Nash went into a completely different dimension.
I first heard Jimmy Giuffre do “Train” with Hall and valve-trombonist Bob Brookmeyer in the opening to the borderline-surrealist concert film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” and the lack of a rhythm section added to the trance-like quality of the piece. But with Allison funking it up and Cardenas adding steel to the foundation, the piece got infinitely chunkier, and Nash took his solo sections to soulful places Giuffre only hinted at. A couple walking by ACC started dancing outside the window, and if there’d been room to do it, I’m pretty sure the crowd would have gotten up and danced, too. They sure cheered their lungs out at the end of the piece, and the trio was laughing that collective laugh that says, “Shit, that was even better than we thought it’d be!”
And just think: This was only the Jim Hall Project’s first night.