The kora, an African stringed instrument that sounds much like an Indian sitar or Persian santour, lends a tantalizing exotic flavor to bassist Ben Allison’s latest album, Peace Pipe, his fourth as leader for Palmetto Records. In the capable hands of Malian virtuoso Mamadou Diabate, the kora is more than a novelty but an integral part of Allison’s vision, one that illuminates and enchants whenever it appears, which is often (Diabate steps aside only on “Peace Pipe” and “Realization”). Drummer / percussionist Michael Sarin is another indispensable piece of the whole, helping to give Allison’s compositions (he wrote all but “Dakan” and “Goin’ Back,” the first by Diabate, the second by Neil Young) the necessary rhythmic drive without drawing undue notice. As I wrote when reviewing a previous album, Third Eye, Allison “is far more interested in the broad panorama of sound than in labels or doctrinal approaches to Jazz, and his music is not easy to categorize.” Not much has changed except that Allison’s music sounds a touch more melodic this time around (perhaps that’s the kora speaking). The opener, “Third Rail,” was, he says, inspired by the music of Duke Ellington and the subways of New York City, while the playful “Slap Happy” is “about texture,” “Realization” is “a train of thought spinning itself out” and “Music Is Music” was improvised on the spot. “Disposable Genius” is the theme for the National Public Radio program On the Media, “Mantra” was recorded earlier with Allison’s band Medicine Wheel on Third Eye, and “Peace Pipe” was originally titled “Rocksteady” after the movement in Jamaican music in the mid–’60s. Diabate’s “Dakan” means “destiny” in the Malian language, Mandinka. Allison, the founder and artistic director of New York’s Jazz Composers Collective, proves again with Peace Pipe that he’s an elusive target, always moving forward and facing head–on whatever musical challenges present themselves. In doing so, he has enlisted able associates in Diabate, Sarin, saxophonist Michael Blake and pianist Frank Kimbrough (though I’ve no idea what a “prepared piano” is — prepared for what?). Tenor Peter Apfelbaum sits in on three tracks, cellist Tomas Ulrich on two, but their contributions, even though essential, are relatively minor. Interesting music, but make no mistake, the Jazz Messengers it ain’t.
Contact: Palmetto Records, 71 Washington Place, New York, NY 10011 (phone 1–800–PALMCDS; www.palmetto–records.com).
Track Listing: Third Rail; Slap Happy; Peace Pipe; Dakan; Goin
Personnel: Ben Allison, bass; Mamadou Diabate, kora; Michael Blake, tenor, soprano
sax; bass clarinet; Frank Kimbrough, piano, prepared piano, wurlitzer
organ; Michael Sarin, drums, percussion. Special guests