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Ben Allison: Leading A Stellar Band Far Beyond The World

Dec 1, 2013
Originally published on December 1, 2013 5:55 pm

Most music fans will recognize the title of Ben Allison's new album, The Stars Look Very Different Today, as a reference to the song "Space Oddity," itself a reference to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The era that birthed David Bowie and Stanley Kubrick's respective masterpieces had a lasting effect on the bassist and composer — and, Allison says, on the crack team of musicians he currently has backing him up.

"The band has, I guess you could say, a decidedly rock feel, but there's all these other sounds coming out of these guys these days: lots of kind of sci-fi sounds, which is what was happening on the scene at that time," Allison tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Electronics really hit the music scene, and it was a big influence on me, coming up as a young musician."

The Stars Look Very Different Today features drummer Allison Miller, guitarist Steve Cardenas, and guitarist and banjo player Brandon Seabrook, all of whom lead bands of their own. Learn more about the making of the album, including what commonplace object Allison used to play its opening notes, by clicking on the audio link.

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Once again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


RATH: I first met Ben Allison in 2000 in New York. He was already a force in the downtown jazz scene where he founded the Jazz Composers Collective. On Tuesday, he'll be releasing his 11th album. In many ways, it's his most personal. It's the first album he mixed and produced all on his own. And the sound references the science fiction he loved growing up in the '60s and '70s - "Star Trek," "Star Wars" and some glam rock. The David Bowie classic "Space Oddity" is referenced in the album title, "The Stars Look Very Different Today." That's just one of many allusions, Allison says.

BEN ALLISON: Well, I'm referencing a lot of film music and a lot of television and movie music of that era, and music in general of that era with this band. The band has, I guess you could say, a decidedly rock feel, but there's all these other sounds coming out of these guys these days, lots of kind of sci-fi sounds, which is what was happening on the scene at that time. Electronics really hit the music scene and was a big influence on me coming up as a young musician.

RATH: Well, we hear that right from the first track, from "D.A.V.E.," where we have some techie kind of electronic noises.


ALLISON: Yeah, I'm actually picking the bass with a folded subway card. We call it a metro card in New York.


RATH: What is "D.A.V.E." a reference to? We were debating this in the office.

ALLISON: Well, it's a little bit of a combination. It actually stands for digital awareness vector emulator. It's, you know, a little tongue-in-cheek, but I was, on one hand, trying to imagine a machine that was becoming sentient. I think we're - probably within our lifetimes we could have a machine that could possibly cross over. And that started me thinking about "2001: A Space Odyssey." A lot of the music from that is, you know, Strauss and Khachaturian and stuff. But...

RATH: A lot of weird atmospheric modern music like Ligeti and...

ALLISON: Exactly. Right. Yeah, so I was going for atmospheric and building up of textures on this album. And that was really the leadoff tune. Dave is also the human - one of the human characters in that film. I mean, Hal was already taken, so Dave seemed like the next best thing.

RATH: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.


RATH: There's one more thing I'm going to throw out at you. Did you know that DAVE was also the digitally advanced villain emulator on the old Batman TV show?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: DAVE is made up of the combined psychological profiles of the most diabolical criminals committed to Arkham Asylum.

ALLISON: You know, now that you mention it, yeah, that's bringing it back. And that's one of those things, like it's quite possible that that idea came to me subconsciously through that, because I watched that show all the time, of course, when I was a kid.


RATH: You mentioned the - getting more of a rock sound. And I definitely feel that in your music, you definitely move to sounding more rocky over the years. And it's interesting, because on this album, you go back to a tune you played, I think, you know, over 10 years ago, that's "Swiss Cheese D." Can we hear the original "Swiss Cheese?"


RATH: And here's the "Swiss Cheese D" off the new album.


RATH: Now, it's not just rock. There's a lot of stuff, I feel, that's kind of coming into the new version. What's it like coming back to that music with your new band?

ALLISON: I mean, I think jazz in general is an evolutionary art form. And by that, I mean it's always changing. It's always expanding. So I'm always keenly aware of, you know, trying to push myself as a composer and just pull in whatever influences that I - just music that I like - and I like so many different kinds of music - and just pulling them into what we do.


RATH: You have another cut on this album, "Dr. Zaius," which is, of course, a reference to the classic "Planet of the Apes." There's - it seems kind of obvious a real science fiction theme running through this music. What's that about?

ALLISON: Well, I'm a self-acknowledged science nerd. You know, I just love science in general. I think if I wasn't a musician, I might have gone into the sciences in some way. So science fiction movies were a big influence when I was a kid growing up. I mean, I had the - all the action sets. And every new science fiction movie that came out, I was right there. I felt the keen tug between the "Star Wars" and the Trekkies. You know, it's - you got to make that call sometime in your life.

RATH: Star Trek, right, obviously.

ALLISON: Totally, yeah. Come on, give me a break. No.


ALLISON: You know, so I just - it's just, again, musicians were always looking for ways to - it's personal music. It's not - hopefully not formulaic. It's just kind of coming from the heart. And so - and the brain but, you know, it's stuff that's inspired by everything that inspires us. So I try to pull in as many references as I can to the things that I like, conceptually, musically, you know, in every way.

RATH: That's bassist and composer Ben Allison. His new album is called "The Stars Look Very Different Today." It's out this week. Ben, thanks. Great talking with you.

ALLISON: So much fun. Thank you.


RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or just launch the NPR app on your smart device. You can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. We're back again next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.