Ben Allison - Layers of the City

Label/Year: Sonic Camera Records, 2017

Lineup – Jeremy Pelt: trumpet; Steve Cardenas: guitar; Frank Kimbrough: piano; Ben Allison: acoustic and electric bass; Allan Mednard: drums.

Through beautiful records such as Buzz and Riding The Nuclear Tiger, American bassist Ben Allison made me aware of the mighty power that a compelling bass groove can infuse on a tune. His creative compositions, carriers of a contagious, nonchalant energy, are penned to set positive vibes on the loose, while the arrangements never feel knotty or forced. In fact, one of his strongest musical features, which I much admire, has to do with this capacity to let the music breathe and flow naturally.

From this breathable articulation comes the empowerment and enchantment of his recent work, Layers of the City, which comprises seven responsible original pieces. To shape them according to his own vision, Allison reunited two frequent collaborators - pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Steve Cardenas, and added a pair of new partners – trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and drummer Allan Mednard.

The opening piece, “Magic Number”, erupts groovily static, obeying to a slow compound meter and featuring brief solos. While Pelt unites relaxation and resolve in his incursions, Cardenas drives his unobstructed lyricism with a lucid sound. This musing posture shifts to a restless, fast walk on “Enter the Dragon”, initially marked by smothered piano notes, and modernly propelled by a singing electric bass and hi-hat rhythmic bites. Assuming a pop/rock core here, the band plunges into experimental waters in a beautiful section that encompasses Kimbrough’s unhesitating breakthroughs, Allison’s jittery bass slides, and Mednard’s cymbal chatters. In turn, Pelt sticks to the main melody, creating unorthodox polyphonies with his mates before the re-establishment of the theme.

Feeling more hypnotic than intimidating, “Ghost Ship” appends a slow bass groove to refined brushed drumming, using Kimbrough’s appealing voicings as conductors. Pelt and Cardenas throw in Eastern-tinged melodies to substantiate the voluptuous distant dance.

Also inviting us to a Turkish-like folk dance, the title track brims with a joyous ecstasy. Even suggesting foreign flavors, this tune may only intend to sonically emulate the rush hours of NYC, where Allison lives. There’s also a delicious shifting passage where the bassist draws a typical hard-rock movement consisting of a repetitive minor third interval that implies power chords. This same approach is repeated on “Get Me Offa This Thing”, but having trumpet and guitar probing a few telepathic vibes sunk in gorgeous sound effects.

Drawing from tradition, but sounding contemporary, “The Detective's Wife” and “Blowback” also contribute to the diversity of the material. The former has an evident Latin touch, falling somewhere between the bolero and the tango, while the latter is a waltz draped with bass staccato moves.

The quintet’s good chemistry is never in question and the music becomes a pure reflection of their cohesive spontaneity. Layers of the City mirrors Allison’s uniquely expressive compositional style with illuminated strokes of genius, becoming an important entry in the bassist’s stupendous discography.

        Grade  A-

        Grade A-

Favorite Tracks: 
02 – Enter The Dragon ► 03 – Ghost Ship ► 04 – Layers of the City