Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Solo Songs Without Words From This Era’s Foremost Tenor Saxophonist

You know the archetype. He stands in silhouette, leaning on a wall sometime after midnight, left foot pressed against the bricks maybe. He’s playing sax, the spare, mournful phrases echoing into the darkness. That is not what JD Allen‘s new solo sax album Queen City – streaming at Spotify – sounds like.

It’s a collection of what he calls vignettes: personal portraits, a small handful of standards and tableaux obviously influenced by the lockdown, a time when this era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist found himself confronting serious existential questions. Most of these pieces have very steady rhythm: this is a great record to play along with. There are no overdubs or effects, other than some tasty natural reverb. For a recording made during arguably the worst time in history for musicians, it’s remarkably upbeat, although not without Allen’s signature gravitas.

There’s a little more mist, and once in awhile a bit of unexpected honk in his sound here, and none of the feral squall he will typically use to make a particularly intense point. He opens with a straightforwardly chugging, unembellished take of Three Little Words and follows the changes just as closely to end the record with a balmy but similarly steady, rather upbeat version of These Foolish Things.

The album has two other covers. Allen reinvents Just a Gigolo with a bit less lockstep precision and without a hint of buffoonery – although there are jokes if you listen closely. And Wildwood Flower – the last thing you’d expect from this guy – becomes a lovely, expansive ballad.

But as usual with Allen, it’s the originals that stand out the most. In a return to the jukebox jazz esthetic that he owned for the better part of two decades, most of these numbers are on the short side, sometimes close to the two-minute mark. The first is Maude, a coy, tiptoeing character study. The second, O.T.R. is a bright, tightly swinging number with some chromatics to raise the energy – it could have fit in on many of Allen’s albums since 2008 or so.

Retrograde – now THERE’s a theme from 2020, huh? – turns out to be a shuffling swing tune with plenty of edge and bite. What kind of dichotomy is there in Gem and Eye? It turns out to be a tasty pair of themes and variations. Seven tracks into the album, we finally get some of Allen’s spine-tingling extended technique: harmonics, duotones and echo phrases – with the tantalizingly brief. Mother.

The album’s title cut – a shout-out to Allen’s relatively recent digs in Cincinnati – is the most acerbically latin-tinged number here. He closes the record with a trio of portraits. There’s whimsicality but even more dead-serious purpose in Vernetta. Kristian with a K is a thoughtful. friendly guy who doesn’t waste words. And the ballad Nyla’s Sky is the big, balmy cloudbreak here: we may have been through hell in the last sixteen months, but everything’s going to be ok, Allen seems to say.

July 8, 2021 - Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , ,

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