Bassist Ben Allison's latest album is a collection of covers, or interpretations, of others' songs; only one is a jazz standard (Thelonious Monk's "Jackie-Ing"), and that's barely recognizable as such. The rock-oriented band, which includes saxophonist/bass clarinetist Michael Blake, guitarist Steve Cardenas (and a second guitarist, Brandon Seabrook, on two tracks), keyboardist Jason Lindner, and drummer Rudy Royston, churns through PJ Harvey's "Missed," Donny Hathaway's "Some Day We'll All Be Free," Neil Young's "Philadelphia," and Paul Williams' "We've Only Just Begun," along with classical composer Samuel Barber's "St Ita's Vision" and one Allison original, the album-closing "Broken." The sound, frequently led by Cardenas with Allison providing a rocksteady throb beneath, is somewhere in the neighborhood of rock; "Missed" sounds like Tom Waits' incorporation of rhumba on 1985's Rain Dogs, while the Hathaway tune becomes a repetitive vamp with Lindner's keyboards providing swooping noises and atmospheric static. "Philadelphia" strips the band down to guitar, bass and gently brushed drums, sounding like a Bill Frisell project in the process. "St. Ita's Vision" brings the keyboards front and center, going for a spacy prog rock vibe reminiscent of early-'70s Tangerine Dream or some Krautrock outfit. "We've Only Just Begun" is the closest thing here to true jazz, with melodic extrapolations rather than repetition, rhythmic fluidity, etc. Blake even launches a tenor solo that goes pretty out, with plenty of squeaks and squawks to strip the song of any lingering associations with the Carpenters. "Broken" is another atmospheric slow burner, Lindner's keyboard sounds reminiscent of Autechre at times. Action-Refraction isn't a straight jazz album, but it's more likely to appeal to young jazz listeners than to indie rock fans, though it offers pleasures for anyone with open ears.
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AllMusic Review by Phil Freeman