Ben Allison, 'Peace Pipe' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

The Jazz Composers Collective was a force for good throughout the Clinton Era and beyond: founded by bassist Ben Allison in 1992, it remained active until 2005 (with the occasional reunion since).

During that 13-year span, the group's model of collectivism within the jazz mainstream — as opposed to the avant-garde, where the AACM reigns — was unusual enough to make news. "For those who keep score in the tradition-versus-innovation jazz wars," mused Ben Ratliff in a review from 2001, "suffice it to say that the ranks of the J.C.C. include members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (the saxophonist Ted Nash and the trombonist Wycliffe Gordon) as well as the Lounge Lizards (the saxophonist Michael Blake)."

About a month after that review, Allison appeared at Symphony Space on a 12-hour marathon concert called Wall-to-Wall Miles Davis. I remember seeing him there, in a group that surprisingly featured two Malian musicians, bringing new inflections to "Milestones." That experiment was apparently something of a lark — but it worked well enough that Allison was inspired to develop new music around the sound of the kora, reenlisting one of those West Africans, Mamadou Diabaté. 


That album was Peace Pipe, featuring Diabaté alongside resourceful J.C.C. members like Blake and pianist Frank Kimbrough. The sound of the album was sleek, chattery and alert, in a cultural convergence that felt novel but hardly forced.

"I got together with each of the musicians separately at first," Allison writes in the album liner notes, "and then worked on integrating all of the sounds I was hearing: bass slaps trading with drum rim shots, interior piano pings offsetting kora melodies, and saxophone floating over the top of everything." 

"Slap Happy," the album's second track, brilliantly embodies the potential of this intuitive strategy. Allison sets up a jaunty bass line, and Diabaté joins him, in a counterpoint as delicate as lacework. Kimbrough adds his own rhythmic flair, pinging the piano strings in a way designed to evoke a kalimba, or maybe a second kora.

Then comes the heart of the track, for me: a Kimbrough solo that begins muted, with one hand dampening the strings. This percussive exhibition is engaging on its own, but when he finally lets the strings resonate, at 3:40, the whole solo opens up, like the sun emerging from a bank of clouds.

You could hear this piano solo and be reminded of mid-'70s Keith Jarrett, which would only be fair. But you'd be missing the point. You might also be missing the outright beauty of Diabaté's solo, which comes next in the lineup, and simply exudes radiance.

You can purchase Peace Pipe on MP3 directly from Ben Allison, at his website.