Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The JD Allen Trio – I Am I Am

This is one of those rare and beautiful moments in music history. The idiom and the performance may be pure jazz but the concept is pure classical, a theme and variations. Its distant cousins are the Mexican Suite and Sketches of Spain, whose darkly thematic, richly melodic majesty the JD Allen Trio’s latest cd, I Am I Am, shares. It is not an overstatement to put tenor player Allen in the company of Ellington and Miles: this album belongs in that pantheon. If someone has to step up to the plate and declare this a classic, let us be the first to do the honors.

Three things you should know about this cd:

1) There’s a narrative arc to each of the songs – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word, no lyrics necessary – as well as an overall narrative for the entire suite.

2) Allen is all about melody, although he and his cohorts, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, aren’t averse to a quick sprint around the block when the mood strikes.

3) To steal a phrase that Brad Mehldau has used voluminously, this is an Art of the Trio album. August and Royston are every bit as essential to this project as Allen is. Royston is an aggressive player in the Tain Watts vein – here, he’s like a baseball catcher who beats a path between home plate and the pitching mound. He’s completely in the game. In the same vein as Jim White of the Dirty Three, Royston colors these songs like a pianist, filling in the spaces between the notes and punctuating the phrases as much if not more than simply providing propulsion. One of the most striking aspects of Allen’s arrangements is how he gives all the darkest sections – and these are everywhere – to August. Which for a bass player is like winning the lottery. August digs in for everything he’s worth, with smoldering chords, eerie chromatic passages and stark staccato pulses like bare branches against a winter sky. Then there’s Allen, who as often as not steps around the brooding pools of sound. What he’s doing is not implied melody per se, but it has the same effect, drawing the listener in to the point of practically becoming a participant. One can only imagine what another, bigger band, or a group in a different style of music might do with the songs here: the possibilities are endless.

From the first four, elegant notes of the atmospheric, almost rubato title track, the theme builds pensively and deliberately. The cd’s second cut seems almost a ruse: after blowing by the theme, the trio take a quick sprint in a classic 60s vein. Then the melody returns with a vengeance, sax and drums feeling around for their footing gingerly as the light dims while Royston keeps the path, such as it is, clear of traffic. By the fourth track, Titus, Allen continues to embellish the theme, August anchoring it with casual, chromatically-fueled chordal menace. Royston takes over center stage next, on Louisada, with a methodical, subtly climactic solo that winds up with an almost surf edge (this seems to be a band that listens widely and eclectically). From there, the tension builds again, Allen taking on more of the darkness, passing the baton to August and then, when least expected, he quotes the Godfather Theme. Track nine, Ezekiel has the band trying to outrun the main theme’s latest permutation, but there’s no escape. The suite wraps up with characteristic understatement, opening with a catchy, wary bass introduction, building to a haunting, insistently and unforgettably anthemic ensemble piece, closing with a simple bass chord. There’s also a bonus track afterward that seems to be something for the closing credits, a rather less menacing tune with a considerable resemblance to the opening melody of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond.

All the way through, the understated, seemingly effortless power of the playing, the counterintuitive intelligence of the arrangements and the terse brilliance of the compositions are all breathtaking. Like all the great albums: Kind of Blue, London Calling, From South Africa to South Carolina, ad infinitum, this is a cd that ought to get into a lot of peoples’ DNA, that will enrich lives for time out of mind as it’s passed down from generation to generation. Until then, getting to know it will be like being initiated into a secret society. This album is all you need to get in.

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February 7, 2009 - Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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