Think Free with bassist/composer Ben Allison in Berkeley

New York bassist/composer Ben Allison performs at the California Jazz Conservatory Sunday afternoon with his quartet Think Free. Photo: Courtesy Ben Allison

Possessing a thick, woody sound and a rock solid sense of time, Ben Allison is one of most expressive bassists in jazz. But the New York-based bandleader isn’t the kind of player who takes a flashy solo every tune. Preferring to guide the proceedings from the churn of the rhythm section, he writes music designed to showcase his superlative crew of collaborators.

Over the course 12 albums spanning the past two decades Allison has in effect turned a series of exceptional ensembles into his primary instrument. He makes an all-too-rare Bay Area appearance Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory with his quartet Think Free, featuring guitarist Steve Cardenas, rising drummer Allan Mednard, and cornetist Kirk Knuffke, who’s performed widely around the region in recent years with drummer Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom and guitarist Charlie Hunter (Think Free also gives an improvisation workshop at the CJC 1 p.m. Sunday).

In many ways Allison has sought to forge a musical identity as a composer in response to the inherent challenges posed by his instrument. “I think it is hard to be a bass player and have a voice that stands out as original,” says Allison, 50, who also performs Monday with Think Free at the Black Cat in San Francisco.

“When you hear a record with Jaco Pastorius or Charles Mingus or Dave Holland, they created a sound that’s their own. I aspire to that. But the way I write tunes and put my stamp on a band has been very much part of how I single myself out as a bassist.”


Even before he released his 1996 debut album Seven Arrows (Koch Jazz), Allison was defining himself as a composer. Part of a rising generation of players drawn to overlooked and rhythmically inventive jazz composers like Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill, he co-founded the musician-run, non-profit Jazz Composers Collective in 1992, serving as the artistic director through the premiere of hundreds of new works.

NPR listeners know his music via “Disposable Genius,” a piece the weekly show On the Media adopted as a theme. The piece originally appeared on Allison’s 2002 album Peace Pipe, a gorgeous album featuring Malian kora master Mamadou Diabaté and Berkeley-born multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum playing tenor sax on three tracks, including “Disposable Genius” (Allison has also performed and recorded extensively with Berkeley-reared trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s stomping Millennial Territory Orchestra).

Think Free evolved out of his avant chamber jazz ensemble Medicine Wheel, and he’s organized it around guitarist Cardenas. The band’s first incarnation appeared on the 2006 album Cowboy Justice (Palmetto), a quartet session with trumpeter Ron Horton and drummer Jeff Ballard. Cardenas has appeared on every Allison album since, including last year’s vinyl-only Quiet Revolution (Newvelle Records) by Ben and The Easy Way, a new trio with reed player Ted Nash that draws on the seminal drummer-less trio recordings by Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall.

“I really liked Steve’s sound and approach,” Allison says. “I had this thought about creating a group with guitar, trumpet, bass and drums, which is not common instrumentation. As a composer, I love creating a new sound, texture and palette. Jenny Scheinman was involved for a while when it was a quintet, then in 2012 it moved to a two-guitar lineup with no horn.”

More recently Allison swapped out the second guitar chair for a trumpeter, touring and recording with the powerhouse Jeremy Pelt (a mutual admiration society, Allison also plays on Pelt’s acclaimed 2015 HighNote album Tales, Musings and Other Reveries). Cornetist Knuffke, another startlingly inventive player, is playing with Think Free this tour while Pelt tends to a new baby.


Cardenas first played with Allison in Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra. He’s been drawn to the bassist’s music by his ability to create new compositions that seem to embrace the musical personalities of his bandmates, while nudging them into slippery sonic territory where footing is less certain.

“He can write these very angular things that somehow have melodicism all through them,” Cardenas says. “When I first started playing with his band there was a breaking in period, getting used to the concepts. What it came down to is that I could do some much simpler things and really serve the music. He’s got specific parts, but I think he hires people based on the way they play and wants them to do what they do. He really thinks about who it is and what they’re going to bring to it naturally.”

Recommended gigs: Toychestra, Janam

Toychestra, the great experimental ensemble that creates music using toys, celebrates 20 years of sonic exploration Saturday at the Ivy Room. The five principal women (Angela Coon, Corey Weinstein, Lexa Walsh, Michelle Adams, and Shari Robertson) are reuniting for an extravaganza packed with special guests, including guitarist Fred Frith, saxophonist Dan Plonsey, guitarist Myles Boisen, Vegan Butcher, and New Zombies.

Janam plays the Monkey House on Sunday. Left to right, Dan Auvil, Gari Hegedus, Lila Sklar, Tom Farris and Juliana Graffagna (Shira Kammen not pictured). Photo by April Renae.

The boundless acoustic quintet Janam plays music melded from the Near East to the East Bay, with stops in Appalachia and Anatolia long the way. Featuring string wizard Gari Hegedus, Juliana Graffagna on vocals and accordion, Shira Kammen on vocals and violin, Dan Auvil on percussion and vocals, and Tom Farris on guitar, laouto and percussion, the group performs a benefit concert for the National Immigration Law Center Sunday at the Monkey House.

Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola plays the Ivy Room every Wednesday in March. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez.

Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola kicked off his Wednesday residency at the Ivy Room last night with Hammond B-3 organist/keyboardist Wil Blades, his long time partner in pugilistic funk. Amendola vs. Blades, a top contender for toughest duo on the scene, played some of the greatest hits from 2016’s urgently grooving album Greatest Hits (Sazi Records), concluding with a sensational medley of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” and “Fame.” Amendola returns to the Ivy Room on March 8 with a talent-stuffed benefit concert for the ACLU featuring Blades, Mocean Worker, bassist Jason Hoopes, guitarist Karl Evangelista, vocalist Aurora Josephson, cellist Crystal Pascucci, guitarist Fred Frith, drummer Jordan Glenn, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, saxophonist Rob Sudduth and others.