calendar  |  musicians  |  venues  |  concert reviews  |  CD reviews  |  photos  |  features

Ben Allison

Ron Horton

Michael Blake

Michael Sarin

Steve Cardenas

photos byRudy Lu

click here for more

A Place for Jazz
The Whisperdome, First Unitarian Society
Schenectady, NY
October 10th, 2008

by J Hunter

I flew the flag pretty hard for Ben Allison a couple of years ago: I named Cowboy Justice (Palmetto, 2006) the best CD of 2006, and his rocking show-and-tell at The Linda got the #2 slot on that year’s Best Concerts list. So even if he’d brought the same tight, focused, boundary-shaking sound he’d bewitched me with two years ago, the possibilities for disappointment were there. Happily, Allison brought more than that to the Whisperdome – a lot more!
All it took was one addition to Allison’s already-powerful lineup – tenor saxman Michael Blake, who came into the fold on Allison’s most recent release Little Things Run the World (Palmetto, 2008). Blake makes both an excellent partner and an outstanding foil for Ron Horton’s Louis Armstrong-in-the-25th-Century trumpet: While Horton shakes the windows with his pure, unmuted attack, Blake spreads an array of colors and tones that expand the music to an infinite degree. It also frees up guitarist Steve Cardenas to go further out in both his fills and his solos; he doesn’t have to offer contrast to Horton, because Blake has that covered like a tent.
The Horton-Blake partnership got things off to a spacey start, prefacing the title track from Little Things with a series of whirrs and calls and hisses that must have had a few audience members thinking, “What the heck is going on here?!” Cardenas threw in a few calls of his own, adding to the disorder. But then Allison and drummer Michael Sarin slid the band into a seriously tasty groove, which got some heads bobbing as Horton and Blake played not-quite unison on the opening melody. The difference between them wasn’t much, but it was enough to show that things were going to get even more interesting as the night went on.
The set was split between tunes from Little Things and Justice, and while they were all outstanding, the Justice pieces stood out for the way they were morphed by Blake’s addition. Horton does the same guttural, hunger-driven snarl that sums up the inspiration for “Tricky Dick”; this time, though, Blake added a deeper, darker growl in chorus to Horton, conjuring up images of another monster that was ready and willing to help inflict even more pain. “Midnight Cowboy” was beautifully textured, with Blake joining Cardenas on the signature riff while Horton took the high, lonely melody; Sarin’s hand-drumming made the piece even more intimate.
I’m a sucker for deadpan humor, which Allison has in spades. “Why don’t we do all the song titles in Portugese,” he suggested before going into “Respiration.” It sounded like a throwaway line, but then Cardenas proceeded to give the Portugese translation for the song title. It became a game between Allison and Cardenas as the night went on, to the point where the audience was loudly encouraging Cardenas to translate every title. When Allison called for the well-deserved encore “Man Size Safe”, Cardenas stepped to the microphone and made the sound effect of a safe being locked, breaking up both the band and the crowd. This piece was the sequel to “Tricky Dick” (Allison calls it Part 2 of his ongoing "Dick Cheney Suite"), and while there were echoes of some of the original piece’s themes, there was more emotion, more rage. It reminded me of the first rule of horror-movie sequels: The body count’s always bigger!
There were plenty of other great moments, both musical and humorous: Allison dedicated the chaotic “Blabbermouth” to the idiots (My word, not his) who pay a $30 cover charge, and then sit by the stage and talk all night long; “Weazy” was Allison’s tribute to Quincy Jones and the great jazzed-up theme songs that dotted 70’s television, which gave Blake another chance to show off his fluid, soulful side; and Horton’s dynamic flugelhorn solo on “Roll Credits” made me wonder why he bothers to bring a mute onstage, because the last thing he needs to do is lessen that glorious white-hot sound of his.
Ben Allison & Man Size Safe is probably the most aggressive band A Place for Jazz has booked in some time. But an APFJ crowd is a smart crowd, well-versed in the genre, and they know quality when they see it. Once the initial confusion cleared, they were more than happy to ride on Allison’s supercharged merry-go-round. Wynton Marsalis may be trying to “rescue jazz from the cultural wastebasket”, but Allison and his partners are proof that jazz is doing just fine, thank you very much, and the future looks brighter every day.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.