Students Collaborate with Jazz Star

Ben Allison Brings "Audacious Sci-fi Jazz" to Knox

December 09, 2013

Knox student poet with the Ben Allison Band
Student poet Christopher Poore accompanied by guitarist Brandon Seabrook, right, of the Ben Allison Band. More photos in gallery below.

Knox College music and writing students collaborated and performed with renowned bassist and composer Ben Allison, as they and jazz fans at Knox and in Galesburg got a preview of Allison's newly released album, during Knox's inaugural Mirza Jazz Residency in November.

Allison -- along with guitarists Brandon Seabrook and Steve Cardenas, and percussionist Allison Miller -- worked with several groups of Knox students during the three-day residency. The culminating performance featured student musicians and poets performing with Allison, plus sets by Allison and his band, and Knox's Cherry Street Combo.

Knox College Cherry Street Combo
The Knox College Cherry Street Combo: Kyle Kunkler, Josh Calef, Jake Hawrylak, Nate Beck

Working with Allison "completely altered our conception of composition," said student Nate Beck, who plays trumpet in the Cherry Street Combo. "Ben said that we could be a lot more flexible [in our improvised solos]. We've had that idea before, but he brought it out of us."

"You've got great chordal movement and surprises, cool chords moving in interesting ways," Allison told the student quartet -- Beck, drummer Josh Calef, pianist Kyle Kunkler and bassist Jake Hawrylak -- in a masterclass. "When you get to the solos [and] you've got a tune with a steady harmonic rhythm, how can you make your solos feel different? ...It's important to consider how each soloist can have a different vibe."

"Different vibe" would be an understatement to describe the idiosyncratic, guitar-driven sound of Allison's latest album, "The Stars Look Very Different Today," released December 3 on Sonic Camera Records. Knox and the Galesburg community got a preview of the album at the November 14 free concert on campus. The concert featured Knox student poets performing with the Allison and his band, reading poems inspired by tracks from the record that Allison had sent to the students in advance.

Ben Allison Band
Ben Allison Band at Knox College: Steve Cardenas, Allison Miller, Ben Allison, Brandon Seabrook

The Christian Science Monitor wrote that Allison's new album is "surprising and stunning" while the Denver Post tagged it as "audacious sci-fi jazz." Billboard praised Allison as "a distinctive voice [on the] New York underground jazz scene."

The blending of student poets and the Ben Allison Band created a unique synergy at Knox. "He's teaching [the poetry students about] the structures of music -- the head, the bridge, dynamics -- language that they may not have used before," said Manuel Lopez III, a professional jazz vocalist and pianist who was in the audience for both the rehearsal and performance. "Then, when they got on stage together, they were teaching him [about their poetry]. There was this bouncing back and forth, it was super-fun to watch them work together."

The Jerome Mirza Jazz Residency at Knox College is funded by a three-year, $30,000 grant from the Jerome Mirza Foundation of Bloomington, Illinois. The foundation, which supports programs in education and the arts, was created by a bequest from Jerome Mirza, an attorney who served as president of the Illinois State Bar Association and Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, and wrote several books on personal injury law. Mirza's daughter, Candace Mirza of Wilmette, Illinois, is a 1981 Knox graduate.

Performance, rehearsal and workshop photos with the Ben Allison Band at Knox College. Full-screen and captions available in a set at the Knox College Flickr channel.