Ben Allison On Jazz, The Universe & Everything

You never know what twists and turns a conversation with Ben Allison may take.  While talking with Pollstar, the jazz bassist’s thoughts ranged from his new album to artificial intelligence.

A man who wears many hats, Allison is a chapter governor of the National Academy Of Recording Arts & Sciences and founder of the Jazz Composers Collective.  He served as an advisor to the Doris Duke Foundation and helped establish Chamber Music America’s New Works – Creation and Presentation program. 

Allison’s credits include the theme for NPR’s “On The Media” as well as the score for the play “Two Days” and the theme for Pharrell Williams’ talk show/webcast, The Conversation.”

His new album, The Stars Look Very Different Today, features the artist performing with guitarist Steve Cardenas, Brandon Seabrook on guitars and banjo, and Allison Miller on drums.

While talking with Pollstar Allison was also doing one of his favorite things – walking down a New York street immersed in the seemingly random sounds of the city.

Photo: Palmetto Records/Jimmy Katz

Between the Jazz Composers Collective and being a New York Chapter governor of the National Academy Of Recording Arts & Sciences, how do you find the time to create music?

The vast majority of what I do is playing, writing and working on new stuff.  That’s 80-90 percent of it.  The other part of it are things I’m interested in.  I like visual elements.  I consider myself, I guess, an artist on all levels.  There are sonics and there are visuals.

As far as the advocacy part of it, that’s really my main interest in terms of my involvement with NARAS. From the very beginning of my career starting the Jazz Composers Collective and moving on to all kinds of things involved with advocacy and the political end of things – it’s like a hobby.  I always felt connected to it and when I got a chance to be on the board of NARAS and be the chair of their advocacy committee, it was a good fit. … I don’t know if testifying in front of Congress is a hobby but it’s something I’ve been able to do and feel good doing.  The majority of my day is creating art and working on new music.

Does that involve the current effort to have radio stations pay royalties to musicians playing on recordings?

That is part of it.  One of the things that has been a challenge for musicians over the years … as the terrain changes, as the political climate changes … musicians find themselves in this kind of precarious position. Mostly, they just want to make music and want to maintain some kind of control over their art. … So my main goal as a performing artist, as a songwriter, is to represent that small voice of people who are artists and creators. … That’s my main focus … representing musicians’ rights.

The title of your new album – The Stars Look Very Different Today – along with tracks named “D.A.V.E.,” “Dr. Zaius” and “Neutron Star” have science and/or science fiction connotations.  Then there are songs like “Swiss Cheese D” and “Kick It Man.”  It almost sounds as if you have one foot in one universe while the other foot remains grounded in more day-to-day things.

I will say my music is heavily inspired by film.  I love movies and when I play music and improvise with my colleagues, we’re referencing whatever we like.  I tend to be drawn a lot towards scores, like film scores.  I think of my band and this project … [we’re] improvising film scores or movies that haven’t been made yet.  Very visual.  When we’re writing and playing, [the music] fits a mood and a theme.  We’re jazz musicians and we’re making it up as we go along.

So “The Ballad Of Joe Buck” refers to the character in “Midnight Cowboy” and not the punk musician from Kentucky?

That’s right. … It [refers to] the Jon Voight character from “Midnight Cowboy.”

The acronym “D.A.V.E.” (for Digital Awareness Vector Emulator) came purely from my brain and not referencing anything in particular.  On the other hand I’m a science buff.  I guess you could say an armchair scientist.  I like to read about what’s happening now and in the past about scientists and how they try to unpack the questions.  One of the things I’m interested in is the idea of artificial intelligence.

If you were to make an analog between people’s brains and computers … and if you were to say a brain is nothing more than a computer in the sense that it’s crunching numbers, could we get to the point where a computer could be conscious? It’s not a new question but it’s something they dealt with a little bit in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

I imagined in my mind a machine that is becoming conscious.  That’s the concept in my mind as I’m writing the tune.  As we’re playing it we’re referencing that. There are these parts that interlock [musically].  Everyone has their role to play. As the tune unfolds there is this kind of dynamic that develops that seems to be beyond the computer.  It has an emotional component.

Do you think total artificial intelligence will ever be achieved?

I guess it depends on how you define intelligence.  If you can make a machine that emulates a human to the extent that the machine is indistinguishable to human response, then you have a Turing machine.  Alan Turing was a great mathematician and he set up this paradigm way back … that you have a machine that can fool a human, that the machine itself is intelligent.

If you’re talking about Watson, the algorithmic computer on “Jeopardy” that analyzes questions and spits out answers, then you have another kind of machine. I don’t know if that passes the Turing test.  Can that machine respond to things that are distinctly human?  Like sarcasm.

Photo: Greg Aiello
with (left to right) Allison Miller, Brandon Seabrook and Steve Cardenas.

Do you think we’ll ever see a time when machines create music that’s indistinguishable from music created by people?

I can imagine it. … Some of the stuff I hear, when I’m watching, say, “The Voice” and I’m hearing these pop tunes coming at me one after another, a lot of them feel very formulaic.  They’re delivered by person but there’s a lot of predictability about it. I can imagine a computer algorithm spitting out a melody.  Let’s say that algorithm analyzes all the pop tunes of the last five  years, picks up some melodic devices, weighs them depending on popularity and spits it back out.  I can imagine that computer creating a melody that’s pleasing to people, that has the elements in it that is recognizable and feels good for the majority of people.  And I can imagine someone taking that melody and delivering it in a human-like fashion with all the inflections. I think that’s here now.

But I’m having a hard time imagining a machine doing what you do.

I think what we do, which is possibly beyond the scope of your average machine, is the element of randomness.  You have four people in a room who are reacting to each other in real time. We’re writing themes but we’re writing them spontaneously.  That’s the nature of jazz. To me that’s what separates jazz from other kinds of music, spontaneous composition.  We’re writing tunes that we hope are meaningful to ourselves and others, but we’re doing it kind of on the fly.

If you were able to have four machines working independently of each other that have that kind of sensitivity, the kind of ability to process information, react and spit out a new idea in real time in a way that is not based on a predictable pattern but based on algorithms that have an esthetic appeal … if that is possible, I can imagine a time when machines could converse in a way that’s meaningful to humans.

Did you come from a musical family?

My mom is an English teacher but she sang Renaissance-era music.  When I was growing up she was in some local choirs. … That was probably the first live music I heard.

Was your first instrument the guitar?

Yeah, I started because I loved The Beatles so much.  When I was a kid my parents listened to American folk music … Bob Dylan and Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and stuff like that.  And European classical music.  It could be a Judy Collins or Don McLean record one day, Wagner the next day.

So I started on guitar, moved to drums in early high school and then felt this pull.  I was working really hard on my guitar playing and working really hard on my drumming [and] I felt I couldn’t do both. Someone suggested the bass and it felt very much to me like the love child of the guitar and the drum.  If those two instruments got together their baby would have been the bass.

Was your first bass experience with a stand-up bass or electric bass guitar?

Electric bass guitar.

Which do you prefer to play today?

I haven’t played electric bass since that day [I first tried it]. … When I was in high school I listened to some jazz for the first time and that was when I first became aware of the acoustic bass. … It really clicked, the idea of the bass as an acoustic instrument with percussive qualities.  Then I fell in love.

When did you first start getting paid for playing music?

That was in high school, too.  I played in a salsa band.  This was New Haven in … the early ’80s and salsa was huge.  We played dance clubs and some of them were huge, about 1,000 people.  I was a little boy from New Haven and I played with these older guys who had been doing it a while.  As the bass player I had a lot of responsibility to lay down the beat. I’d get my $50 at the end of the night and that was it.  For me it was laying down the bass line and having a lot of people respond to it.

At that time did you think that was all you needed and you didn’t need an education?

[laughs].  Yeah, to myself I did.  Outwardly, I went to New York University and got my degree in music but inwardly I thought if I could get 1,000 people to dance that was all I needed to know how to do.

Are there times you still feel like that today?

I do.  I think of myself these days a little bit differently, kind of like a small business person. I have this sound I developed for a long time. It’s my own but it’s also based on the music of my colleagues and it’s specific to my town, New York. … Stylistically it has its own thing.  I feel passionately about my music.  It’s not salsa dance music but I feel like it’s personal, something I’m committed to.

Is the music on the new album a result of collaborations between you and the other three musicians or were you the man in charge telling everyone what to do?

Yes and no.  The nature of this music … in a figurative sense are landscapes.  I write a tune, it has a vibe, I put it out there, I write a lead sheet, key elements of the tune, then I let the musicians kind of run free with it.  Let them do what they want to do.  I think of myself as a landscape painter.  Paint the landscape, musicians are then free to explore.  They’re bringing a lot to it.  They’re bringing their own personalities.  I don’t tell them which notes to play.  It’s much less specific than that.  It’s more like talking to them in more general terms – “This one is going to be about a computer becoming sentient.”

At the end of [D.A.V.E.] Brandon Seabrook, one of the guitarists in the band, started playing these … R2D2-like sounds, he just came up with them on the spot and it seemed to fit the tune. I was like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what it is.  What if your guitar was a computer and it’s trying to speak musically.”

We did this record in two days.  Half of these tunes I brought to them on the day of the recording session.  Although we’re referencing a lot of rock and pop music, the record is not made in a pop or rock way. It was done in two days from beginning to end. So it’s what happened on that particular day. It’s highly improvised.  Everyone is bringing their own musicality to the context of the tune. We lay it down and move on to the next one.

When you perform these songs live, will they sound exactly as they do on the album or will each performance be different?

Yes and no.  When I was a kid I went to see the Rossington Collins band, the ghost band of Lynyrd Skynyrd.  When they played “Free Bird” they played the solo from the album because the solo was written out.  I remember on one hand feeling glad they played what I thought they would play. But also, even at the age of 11, I felt a little disappointed that they hadn’t gone for something different.

So, for us, we’re playing the tunes, they’ll have the character of the tunes, but there are going to be different things about it, it’s not going to be the same thing. When we created them originally they were of the moment.  It’s more like the character of the tune will always be there but on any given night there will be a certain amount of variety, people going for different things.

Do you find writing non-lyrical songs more of a challenge than writing a three-minute pop tune?

Oh, no. I think writing a three-minute pop tune could be the hardest thing you could do.  To sum up what you want to say in three minutes, I can’t think of anything more difficult.  For me, I think that is the bane of the jazz musician. The mistake that we so often make is trying to add interest to a tune by making it more complex.  The beauty is summing up a great idea, something that is meaningful to people, in a few words.  That’s my goal as a jazz musician.  Now there is a lot of pop music that has a small amount of information … meaningless and uninteresting.  On the other hand there is some pop music that conveys a lot of information with a small amount of information.

What is the best advice that anyone has ever given you?

I guess my mom [gave it to me]. She said, “Do what makes you happy.”

Photo: Greg Aiello
“Someone suggested the bass and it felt very much to me like the love child of the guitar and the drum.”

Upcoming Shows for Ben Allison:

Nov. 9 – Denver, Colo., Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge
Nov. 10 – Denver, Colo., Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge
Nov. 15 – Chicago, Ill., Green Mill
Nov. 16 – Chicago, Ill., Green Mill
Dec. 3 – New York, N.Y.,  Joe’s Pub
Jan. 10 – North Bethesda, MD  Mansion At Strathmore
Jan. 11 – Princeton, N.J., Princeton University
Jan. 14 – New York, N.Y., Jazz Standard
Feb. 18 – New York, N.Y., Birdland
Feb. 19 – New York, N.Y., Birdland
Feb. 20 – New York, N.Y., Birdland
Feb. 21 – New York, N.Y., Birdland
Feb. 22 – New York, N.Y., Birdland
March 4 – New York, N.Y., Jazz Standard
March 5 – New York, N.Y., Jazz Standard
March 6 – New York, N.Y., Jazz Standard
March 7 – New York, N.Y., Jazz Standard
March 8 – New York, N.Y., Jazz Standard
March 9 – Philadelphia, Pa.,  Merriam Theater
March 14 – Santa Barbara, Calif., Lobero Theatre
March 15 – Los Angeles, Calif., Walt Disney Concert Hall
March 21 – New Haven, Conn., Firehouse 12
April 10 – Chapel Hill, N.C., Univ. of North Carolina / Chapel Hill
April 11 – Chapel Hill, N.C., Univ. of North Carolina / Chapel Hill
July 15 – New York, N.Y., Birdland
July 16 – New York, N.Y., Birdland
July 17 – New York, N.Y., Birdland
July 18 – New York, N.Y., Birdland
July 19 – New York, N.Y., Birdland

Appearing with the Ben Allison Band Nov. 9 – Jan. 11 and the Ben Allison Trio March 21.  Appearing as a guest soloist with the University Of North Carolina Jazz Combo April 10 and the school’s jazz band April 11. Appearing with the Ben Allison Group July 15-19.

Please visit for more information.