Ben Rolston – “Fables”


I listen to a lot of new jazz every year. Not a week goes by that I haven’t sifted through lists of hundreds of new releases, employing a personal system that allows to listen to everything at least a little as I whittle those long lists down into something more manageable, something that I can spend more time investigating. It’s a lot of work, but one of the results of this hard work that makes it all worth it are the debut albums by young musicians that belie their relative inexperience.

They are often hit and miss, with a statistical weight heavier on the latter than the former. But, really, even many of the misses have their admirable qualities… qualities that they share with the hits: An abounding energy and optimism, an incessant need to get as many ideas out there and make as many definitive statements about who they are as musicians, and a willingness to take chances and make mistakes even as they pursue the infeasible goal of putting out the perfect album on the first attempt.

It’s where rock n’ roll bravado meets jazz musicianship. And my enjoyment in discovering these albums and bringing them to light on Bird is the Worm never wanes.

Recent U of Michigan grad and bassist Ben Rolston has put out one such album. Let me introduce you to it…

Your album personnel: Ben Rolston (double & electric basses), Ingrid Racine (trumpet), Marcus Elliot (tenor sax, EWI), Alex Levine (guitar), Ian Finkelstein (piano, Wurlitzer), Julian Allen (drums, programming), and guests: Stephen Rush (Wurlitzer, harmonium), Andrew Bishop (bass clarinet, soprano sax), and Annlie Huang (cello).

This is 100% modern jazz, though with the myriad of forms that modern jazz takes, that’s an insufficient tag. The is the modern jazz that can trace its lineage back to Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band, sometimes referred to as nu-jazz, though it seems even that phrase has been co-opted to imply other thing. The is jazz with strong indie rock influences… melodies that roam away and may never come back, rhythms that will shift in and out of Rock mode, and an approach that echoes the John Coltrane transition period between Hard Bop and Free Jazz (a la A Love Supreme), which often dangles strong melodies over the precipice of wildly churning percussion.

Take for example album opener “The Tar Sun (intro),” a gale force of instruments with a mournful rising moan, a series of calls in the absence of any response, a song whose shape is defined more by what it didn’t do than where it went. And second track “Branches and Bark,” which opens with a frenetic Ralston bass solo, has some lilting sax (tenor and soprano; Elliot and Bishop) layered over the top, even as Ralston continues to pound away at the tempo and creating a nice sense of two stories being told at the same time. Other members of the ensemble get a little space to speak up, and the tune wanders pretty far from bass camp… even a slight return to melody feels like miles away. But this is a quality of the type of modern jazz I’m talking about, and honestly, it’s only a bad thing if it gets under your skin to not hear a strong restatement of melody. Personally, I don’t mind an ambiguous finale.

On “Kiss the Speaker Wire,” Rolston pairs a bass arco with Annlie Huang’s cello for a hauntingly lovely opening statement. Finkelstein and Allen interrupt with an alluring burst of piano and drums that hints at the opening to a spiritual jazz track, but trumpet and sax shift the song into a gently rocking sway, and though piano does bring some choppy waters into play, the ensemble stays the course.

The two-part “For Continuing Curiosity and Wonder” has a freer form that sometimes works in its favor, sometimes not. Like: How sax and rhythm section interact on the up-tempo sections, especially in the closing moments of Part 2. Dislike: How sax and rhythm section interact on the sparser sections. Additional Like: How the free forms of the two-part piece immediately transitions into the strong melody of subsequent track “The Disappearance of Clarence Shaw,” the most song-like of all the album tracks.

And, in truth, that’s probably where the album should’ve ended. But that’s goes back to one of my initial observations about debut albums from young artists… trying to get too much down on paper. A way that typically manifests is in knowing what to cut out of a recording session and save for another time. The track “(mineral)” is a disassembled funk tune, heavy on electronics, light on form. It isn’t bad or anything, but woefully out of place with the rest of the album. Also, “Leafy” has a lot going on, too much really, and the transitions from free form to jazz-rock etc seem out of place.

The album ends with “(vegetable)” and “The Tar Sun (outro).” I like both tracks, and while I’m of the opinion that the album would’ve gone out strong with “The Disappearance of Clarence Shaw,” I can’t find fault with the engrossing bass solo of “(vegetable),” which brings a nice soulfulness to the proceedings, and “The Tar Sun (outro)” which provides a nice sense of closure with its flip-side rendition of the album opener. Regardless of where Fables should’ve ended, it does go out strong, which is an album quality one should never undervalue.

Fables is a very promising start to Rolston’s recording career.

The album is Self-Produced.

Jazz from the Ann Arbor, MI scene.

You can stream the album, and purchase it, at the artist’s bandcamp page.

Available at eMusic.  Available at Amazon: MP3