Between Medicine Wheel‚ the Kush Trio‚ the Herbie Nichols Project‚ and a host of other models‚ Ben Allison has had more conceptual updates than Madonna. Personally‚ I thought Allison had found the perfect balance with Man-Size Safe‚ the monstrous unit on the New York-based composer/bass player's last release Little Things Run the World. However‚ multiple listens to Think Free showed me that -- while Allison's playing with another new line-up -- all he's really changed is his textural approach.
Allison's compositions invariably come in one single "narrative‚" and the mid-tempo opener "Fred" follows that form. The redoubtable Jenny Scheinman joins Shane Endsley on the melody‚ her violin giving his un-muted trumpet a slightly phased quality. Allison and drummer Rudy Roysten's foundation stays straight and steady while guitarist Steve Cardenas' understated lines sound like they're coming from a Fender Rhodes. This 21st-century background contrasts Scheinman's Le Hot Club-like attack perfectly‚ taking Allison's sound to a new place while maintaining that sound's overall familiarity.
It's easy to love Scheinman's stuff‚ no matter where she's playing. Her lyrical solo on the closer "Green Al" is loose and grooving‚ totally enjoyable inside the R&B-flavored piece‚ and her dissonant slashes on "Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Godzilla" (A movie I'd pay to see) heighten the sense that something deadly this way comes. Scheinman's solos and fills give Think the feel of an all-acoustic set‚ even though Cardenas is thoroughly electric -- in every sense of the word; his steel-edged lines on "Platypus" may be his best work with Allison yet.
While I loved Ron Horton's balls-out horn play on Little Things and Cowboy Justice‚ Endsley's more subtle approach is better suited to Allison's new material. He and Scheinman harmonize beautifully on the surprisingly upbeat "Broke" and Endsley's staccato solo on the initially-free "Sleeping Giant" really rocks. The only problem with the Scheinman/Endsley front line happens when they play unison: While Horton's lines on Little Things were infused with the deep harmonic of Michael Blake's tenor sax‚ Scheinman's violin tends to disappear behind Endsley's horn‚ re-appearing only when she breaks out on a solo.
It's a little thing‚ but (as Allison pointed out previously) little things run the world. However‚ they don't stop Think Free from being another gold star for Allison‚ who -- unlike Madonna -- grows with each new iteration.
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