From Bjork to Black Sabbath, an array of pop artists have had their tunes updated by clever jazz acts during the past few years. It’s a strategy that often provides a refreshing twist while occasionally tilting towards novelty. Except for a pair of John Lennon pieces, Ben Allison has dodged this tack. After eight albums of original tune-smithing, he’s known as a composer as much as he is a bassist. But his latest Palmetto disc makes hay with six covers that ably illustrate the depth of his imagination. Leading a quintet he deems “an electro-acoustic orchestra,” Allison definitely fulfills on the “refraction” part of his album title.
It’s not only pop that gets re-spun. The disc begins with Thelonious Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” and includes Samuel Barber’s “St Ita’s Vision.” Both are bent to accommodate episodes of interplay. The former trades Monk’s esprit for something a tad more sober (you can thank Michael Blake’s bass clarinet), and the latter opens up to give Jason Lindner’s synth a chance to squiggle a bit. Each sets a reflective mood. In comparison, PJ Harvey’s “Missed” sounds like a jukebox hit. A grinding guitar riff, a thud of drums, and the quintet finds itself snaking down a dark alleyway. More impressionistic are Donny Hathaway’s “Some Day We’ll All Be Free,” which chugs through a sweet R&B groove and invites some fractious background fuzz to the party, and Neil Young’s “Philadelphia,” which waxes forlorn yet finds guitarist Steve Cardenas plucking pretty. But perhaps it’s the Carpenters’ “We Only Just Begun” that boasts the most creative arrangement. An itchy pulse rubs up against a languid melody and voila!, the schmaltz is now sophisticated – not unlike like what Cassandra Wilson did with “Last Train To Clarksville.” It’s this kind of ingenious magic that might make fans beg for Action-Refraction, Vol 2.