Rock-based jazz and Dick Cheney’s hidey hole

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Ben Allison & Man Size Safe: Little Things Run the World

At last. An actual new release on the kitchen boombox. The 2007 Little Things Run the World is the latest release for New York jazz bassist Ben Allison and his quartet Man Size Safe. They were in town last weekend in support of the album, and we caught a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center.

We lucked into going to this performance when I came across a glowing write-up in the Chicago Reader; jazz critic Pete Margasak had named them his Critic’s Choice for the week. Here’s what he had to say:

What sets New York bassist Ben Allison apart from nearly every other jazz composer active today isn’t the influence of African music, electronica, and funk on his work—it’s the way he’s internalized the introspective melodicism of contemporary rock. (Here I’m thinking specifically of Radiohead.) His compact tunes are consistently so catchy and propulsive that you could easily overlook their subtlety and rhythmic elasticity: the new album from his band Man Size Safe, Little Things Run the World (Palmetto), may be his hookiest and most rock flavored yet, but the grooves he pounds out with drummer Michael Sarin constantly change shape and tempo, belying their rugged directness. The improvisations by trumpeter Ron Horton, saxophonist Michael Blake, and guitarist Steve Cardenas (who maintains a cool tone and attack even when it’d be easy to crank it) seal the deal—this is jazz all right, and played on a very high level. It’s a treat to hear soloists this good challenged by material this strong.

And if all this praise weren’t enough, the show in the Cultural Center’s intimate, acoustically wonderful Claudia Cassidy Theater was free. How could we not go?

Allison and his group delivered on the promise and then some. They stuck to tracks from the new album for the hour and change show, with the exception of a single tune. The music was smart, complex and engaging, if more melodic than the avant garde jazz I tend to seek out these days. And while the group’s leader is a bassist, he resisted the urge to play frontman with his rhythm instrument, always a potential danger with groups led by bassists or drummers.

On the other hand, because of his leadership—and the great work of drummer Michael Sarin—rhythms and tempos shifted freely from piece to piece and within individual tunes, often veering off in exciting directions. This, coupled with great performances by guitarist Steve Cardenas and sax player Michael Blake and particularly by trumpeter Ron Horton made for an excellent show. It also gave me plenty of reason to but the album.

Even without Pete Margasak’s comments, there’s no missing the rock influence on the music. Occasional fuzz-toned moments in Cardenas’ guitar solos make the point, as do the driving bass lines by Allison. But a real giveaway is Sarin’s drumming. A rock drummer friend once talked about trying to sit in at a jazz jam session. He lost his nerve when he saw that the other drummers rarely touched the pedal for the bass drum, a staple in rock drumming. Sarin’s bass drum sees plenty of action.

Another hint that rock informs their sound? The only cover on the album is John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. It’s also one of the standout tracks. With all this talk of rock helping shape the sound of the group, let me make one thing clear: This is not jazz fusion. That particular musical travesty is all but dead, I’m happy to say. This is solid jazz, beautifully performed.

Is it possible for a song with no words to be political? The tune that gives the band its name, Man Size Safe, refers to just such an object in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. The music begins with solo guitar picking out a melody line that is pure 60s caper film; it smacks of darkness, imminent danger and nefarious activity. Jewel thieves, spies and crooked dealings. You would feel this even without the back story. Allison describes the song perfectly in his entertaining liner notes: “Part of my ongoing Dick Cheney Suite. Dick—a modern corporate man steps off a plane, his scarred heart crackles and fizzles. He must believe his own psychosis. Sneering secrets create empires. The business of war drives the economy. It all makes sense in his mind. After all, he’s the policeman policing himself. But I can’t help wondering what the man size safe in his office is for.”

The album isn’t without its problems. Saxophonist Blake, who played an integral part in the musical conversation at the show is only a guest on the album, meaning that, on too many of the eight tracks, the trumpet has to do too much of the heavy lifting solowise. And sometimes when musicians get into the studio, there is a tendency to polish and tweak and produce the life right out of the music. For me, the recording lacks a little of the energy and edge that the live performance had.

Then again, maybe this is just one of those recordings that demands active listening, much like the show itself. I find when I put Little Things Run the World on the kitchen boombox, it tends to slip too easily into the background as I get involved in cooking. But listening to it in the car or on my iPod, it takes center stage, and I find myself delighting in complex moments and subtle exchanges.

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2 Responses to “Rock-based jazz and Dick Cheney’s hidey hole”

  1. Carolyn Says:

    Terry, have you run into the woman who sings the song on the new MacBook Air commercial? Yael Naem. Would be interested in your thoughts.

  2. Delicious, delicate: Tarragon mustard sauce — Blue Kitchen Says:

    […] Rock-based jazz and Dick Cheney’s hidey hole. Bet you never thought you’d see those two phrases together. FInd out the connection, at What’s on the kitchen boombox? […]

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