Riding the Nuclear Tiger

COMPOSERS: Ben Allison
LABELS: Palmetto
PERFORMER: Ron Horton (t, flhn), Ted Nash (ss, as, ts, bcl), Michael Blake (ss, ts), Frank Kimbrough (p), Tomas Ulrich (clo), Ben Allison (b), Jeff Ballard (d)


Although there’s been an unseemly rush to embrace musical detritus from other forms – be it hip hop beats or world music blarney – as the best way forward for new jazz, more creative souls within the music continue to come up with fresh and profound results from familiar resources.

Consider these two groups, separated by an ocean or two. Both are utterly acoustic, work from compositional bases and depend on familiar verities like strong improvising and imaginative writing. Yet both sound absolutely of the moment.

Allison and his group are at the New York end of things. Most of them are associated with the Jazz Composers Collective, a gathering which has been providing much terrific music from the city in one form or another through the 1990s.

This is Medicine Wheel’s third album for Palmetto and it affirms that Allison is a leader of rare assurance as well as a composer of plentiful inspiration. The title track is both exhilarating and peculiarly ominous, as befits its title, with Jeff Ballard amusingly lifting the others with a hip hop shuffle from his kit while Michael Blake spears an icy soprano solo over the top.

Blake, Nash and Horton make up a particularly imposing horn section, and Allison is always setting up interesting bits of business for them even when the spotlight is elsewhere, with striking sections of counterpoint and some astringent harmonising. ‘Swiss Cheese D’, ‘Weazy’ and the seasick ‘Charlie Brown’s Psychedelic Christmas’, which is set up in two contrary keys, are the work of a composer dissatisfied with convention.

Petter Wettre, the lanky tenorman from Oslo, is content with relatively simple procedures for most of the time. The sax-bass-drums trinity has been a dependably exciting combination since the Sonny Rollins trios of 1956-7. What Wettre and his cohorts do is roast their material until it’s all but squeaking.

This third album by the group isn’t quite as hell-for-leather as the previous two, a little more produced, maybe a tad more considered, but the finesse of the group is astounding even when they’re going at full throttle.


Wettre’s explosively garrulous delivery is exciting, but Vespestad’s drumming is even more extraordinary: if there’s another sticksman who combines furious momentum with flair and even delicacy as well as this, he should make himself known. A pair of releases to give any listener fresh heart.