Over the past decade, bassist Ben Allison has quietly established a reputation as one of the East Coast’s more cerebral jazz voices, heading up the Jazz Composers Collective, working with the Aaron Copland Foundation and even composing theme music for National Public Radio.
But as his sporadic recordings attest, Allison is just as capable of waxing straightforward — more or less — and that’s just what he did at the first night of his septet’s Gotham stand. Much of the material presented was quizzical and jumpy — such as “Disposable Genius,” the theme for NPR’s “On Media” — but the complexity was unforced and joyful, not the sort often proffered by wise guys stretching out.
Allison is a restless sort, constantly tinkering with both his compositions and the ensembles he assembles to deliver them. This evening, the wild card was Malian kora player Mamadou Diabate, whose heady playing, while certainly rooted in the traditional music of West Africa, never seemed like ethnic window-dressing.
Diabate shone most brightly on “Mantra,” which set his energetic playing against a percussive rhythm centered on Allison’s tapping strings with a long, bell-festooned stick.
Each member of the collective got a chance to strut his stuff over the course of the 70-minute set: Reedman Michael Blake got in a few Roland Kirk-styled licks by simultaneously playing a soprano and tenor on “Weezie,” a laid-back number that would have benefited from a few more changes in tempo.
The set-ending “Four Folks’ Songs” brought everyone into the mix on a multihued bit of collective improv that touched on Morricone, Mingus and an odd bit of klezmer as it bounced from measure to measure.
Perf was the first at the freshly remodeled Jazz Standard, a sleek but unstuffy basement space attached to restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke, which features a menu dedicated to St. Louis-style barbecue — giving New Yorkers a place where serious jazz and serious dining can exist under one roof.