My Conversation with Aaron Siegel Part 2: The Tradition of Jazz is Non-Traditionalism

(Re-printed with permission from the Carnegie Hall Blog)

Aaron Siegel: You have nine or ten records now as a leader, which is a pretty significant catalog. One of the things that was really interesting to me was that up until this point each of the records was mostly your music with one or two covers. Then with your latest record—Action/Refraction—it suddenly goes totally to covers. I use that term loosely, because I think what you're doing is actually a much more sophisticated and much more inventive response.

Ben Allison: Yes, most of my albums to this point have been centered around my original compositions. That’s an important part of how I define myself as a musician. But I’ve also recorded music by legends such as Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, John Lennon, Neil Young as well as some of my colleagues like Michael Blake and Steve Cardenas (both of whom will be performing with me at the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert).

These are composers whose music I really admire, people whose music strikes a chord. It's a chemical thing. I think the same thing that draws me to playing with Steve and Michael also draws me to listening to those other musicians. There's something in their music that on the one hand feels deeply personal and original but on the other hand feels familiar. Even if I've never heard it before, at least emotionally it gets me right away. I sometimes get this feeling when I'm listening to someone else's music where I wish I had written it. With some tunes that I hear, I feel almost envious of the composer. I think "I wish I had written that. I almost could have written that, because it sounds so much like something I would want to write."

Aaron Siegel: Is that where the "refraction" metaphor comes in? Do you see the band refracting these other things?

Ben Allison: The light's coming in and being split into its component parts. I'm a science nerd, so that's how I think about things. It's about taking the music apart and seeing what it's made out of. That's the "refraction" part. The "action" part is reassembling it in our own way and trying to find something new to say with it, using the constituent parts of the music as jumping off points.

I call it a covers album because that gives people some kind of a context, but I think it's a little bit more than just covering someone else's music. I try to put my own stamp on it. I tend to be somewhat irreverent as a person, at least when it comes to music. As much as I love these great musicians, I also feel that part of the responsibility of any artist is to try to bring something new and personal to what they do. We have to be a little bit fearless in that regard.

Taking something like a Donny Hathaway tune, especially something like "Someday We'll All Be Free," and taking it apart and rebuilding it in a totally new way is risky. It feels in one way exhilarating and in another way terrifying—because I admire his music so much, and my greatest fear would be that a relative would call me up and say they hated what I did with his music. At the same time I feel like it's our responsibility. Jazz musicians have always been a restless bunch. They've always been the kind of artists that like to push boundaries, taking elements of other styles and reusing them. The tradition of jazz is non-traditionalism, in my opinion.

Aaron Siegel: I'm thinking about how much the notion of the cover has been a part of the jazz tradition.

Ben Allison: In that era, Charlie Parker's "tunes" were really solos that he liked and codified into melodies that he could do more than once. He

would take the pop tunes of the day, get rid of the melody, and use the harmony as a jumping off point for a solo. Then, when he played a solo that he really liked, he'd write that down, and that became the tune. It was totally connected with modern American Songbook material.

Jazz at its core is a folk music in that regard—at least it should be. It should be connected to what's happening now. It's our responsibility as jazz musicians to keep it relevant, and the way you do that is either write the new standards or use the new standards as a jumping off point.

Aaron Siegel: An interesting responsibility for musicians is the decisions they make about what songs to cover.

Ben Allison: That was actually part of the challenge I set for myself—"Can I take a Samuel Barber piece [St. Ita's Vision] and put it right next to a punk rock-era PJ Harvey tune [Missed]?" Hopefully we were successful. I like the idea. It's almost a collage approach to writing.

I think a lot of jazz musicians of my generation think about improvisation a little bit differently than in the early days. To continue with Charlie Parker, in those days (as I said) they would have a set of chord changes and a soloist would improvise a melody over the top of them. Their melodies were a language that they were developing—they're connected to that time and that era. A lot of jazz musicians of today are thinking more in terms of soloing with a genre. While the notes continue to be important, they're not our focal point. We're really thinking about genre as the basic building blocks that we can use to improvise over.

What we call jazz has expanded to include almost anything you can think of. The one thing that stays constant is this notion of improvisation. What we're improvising now is playing with genre and using premeditated composition and spontaneous composition as our tool. Spontaneous composition is basically a fancy word for improvising.