Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The JD Allen Trio’s Landmark VICTORY! Out May 17

The JD Allen Trio’s new album VICTORY!, out on May 17, is one of those rare albums that stands to influence an entire generation of players. But that’s not the reason why it’s worth hearing: it’s because it’s such a good listen. Emotionally impactful and surprisingly diverse, it’s the most eclectic release so far by this extraordinary tenor sax-bass-drums unit who’ve been making potent albums since 2007. The group play the cd release show on May 18 at 7:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge.

The JD Allen Trio’s 2007 debut I AM I AM didn’t just explode out of nowhere – the tenor saxophonist and bandleader had been a sought-after sideman since the 90s. But it was an explosion, and four years later validates the fact that we called it a classic at the time. The new album seems to be the third and possibly climactic chapter of a triptych that began with I AM I AM and continued with 2009’s Shine! Allen disarmingly calls his compositions “jukebox jazz,” continuing the tradition of guys like Monk and Brubeck, whose compositions were as catchy as they were cerebral, and who sold hundreds of thousands of them as 45 RPM singles. Taking the form of a classical sonata – a theme and variations which end conclusively – the new album offers twelve succinct, interwoven compositions. With its direct, unflinchingly intense central theme which itself refers back to I AM I AM, this album takes the intensity of that album’s breakthrough suite to the next level, and on to its logical conclusion. Yet while all the rigor of I AM I AM is also in full effect here, this new album explores considerably more emotionally and musically diverse terrain. And it ends optimistically.

The title track sets the tone for much of the album, dark enigmatic minor-key gospel beauty played out against the stately insistence of the rhythm section, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Royston’s aggressive introduction offers no hint of the balmy swing that emerges on the second track, The Pilot’s Compass, Allen interjecting commentary as August pulses and Royston supplies his signature, muscular rumble. They follow with the darkly biting, minor bluesy The Thirsty Ear and then the broodingly potent, ominously modal Sura Hinda, Allen’s solemn vibrato adding extra gravitas. As on I AM I AM, August gets an enviable role to play throughout the album, notably on The Learned Tongue as he shadows Allen while the drums go rubato, or on Philippe Petit – a homage to the World Trade Center wirewalker – where his serious, bowed lines, equal part triumph and terror, balance against Royston’s playful intricacies and Allen’s calm, steely optimism.

The simply titled Motif allows Allen and Royston to take the theme further outside as August sits out. Fatima allows a playful element to creep in over Royston’s nimble shuffle; Mr. Steepy enters with unexpectedly blithe swing blues, Allen running eighth notes a la Ben Webster, Royston eventually cutting loose with a grin and crowding everyone out of the picture. The album winds up with three unexpected shifts: a Harold Arlen-esque ballad; The Hungry Eye, centered around a vividly off-center bass solo; and the final track, reprising The Pilot’s Compass and elevating it to a rare sense of joy, ending suddenly with a bit of a wink. It could be the high point in a career of a group whose trajectory is still on the upswing.

May 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/27/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #886:

The JD Allen Trio – I Am I Am

A landmark album in modern jazz. A theme and variations with a few playful, sometimes wildly furious diversions, this tenor sax trio session was sort of the zeros counterpart to late 1950s Sonny Rollins – but better. Released at the end of 2008, Allen deftly skirts the edges of eerie, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged modal intensity, turning over the darkest shades to bassist Gregg August, who welcomes them like a vampire welcomes the night. Rudy Royston, the greatest of this era’s jazz drummers and heir to Elvin Jones’ throne, is a ferociously hard hitter, building the shape of these strikingly melodic, barely four-minute segments every bit as much as Allen does. They quote the Godfather theme and Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond and even hint at a surf music vamp when they’re not working the terse, brooding central motif from fiery riffage to understated elegiac drama. Allen’s previous and subsequent studio work is every bit as memorable and melodic but not as intense, but his live performances – especially with this rhythm section – are among the most exhilarating of any band in recent years.

August 27, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The JD Allen Trio at Puppets Jazz Bar, Brooklyn NY 6/25/09

Seemingly a low-key warmup gig for the JD Allen Trio’s upcoming weeklong stand at the Vanguard this coming August 11-16, they were practically jumping out of their shoes to be playing together again after a break of almost a month. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s compositions and sense of melody are so strong that he doesn’t have to be ostentatious, and he wasn’t. Allen has concretized his style: he’s exactly the same as a bandleader and composer as he is a sideman, always finding the melody, always finding the most elegant, terse way to make his point – and his songs all make one, often very vividly. This group works perfectly as a trio because there isn’t room for anybody else, the rhythm section being as ferocious as it is. Allen’s articulacy as a player matches his writing. He spent the duration of the set tossing off crystalline eighth-note runs and edgily precise, minor-key motifs loaded with implied melody while the rhythm section ran amok. Rudy Royston has to be the most exciting drummer in jazz right now (no disrespect to any of the other good ones, you know who you are, we’ll be reviewing one of you next week). Puppets is a small room, and Royston felt it, leaving the intensity  just a notch below pain level. Where Allen speaks in phrases, Royston speaks in chapters – but they’re meaningful chapters, and bassist Gregg August seemed only too glad to jump in and go along for what became a wild ride from the first few rolls across the toms. August is also a first-rate composer with an ear for a memorable narrative, which makes him a particularly good fit for Allen, but this time out it didn’t take long before he went unhinged in tandem with Royston while Allen struck a striking stance in the unlikely role as melodic leader also charged with carrying the rhythm and organizing the songs’ architecture. Backwards, no doubt, but that’s part of what made the show so fascinating to watch.

The trio mixed songs from their two brilliant albums, last year’s I Am I Am and the just-released, equally melodic Shine! On the records, most of them are brief, barely four minutes long, but the group elongated  their shadows so they almost disappeared and then spun back in a split second, looming large and ominous. I Am I Am is a theme and variations, and Allen worked its impatient, angry insistence for all it was worth, using the central hook as an anchor to keep the low-register rumble from lurching and destroying everything in its path. Royston didn’t steal the show – he was the show, introducing not one but two unexpected, instant crescendos with press rolls. He worked his snare not with a snap but a boom, at one point during a solo building a defiant nine-note phrase artfully as a horn line. August has a great feel for latin rhythms, which in tandem with Royston’s reckless yet judicious rides across the cymbal heads added luminosity to some of the growlier I Am I Am passages. At the end, they swung, August running scales madly while Royston careened through the underbrush, Allen to the side, surgically incisive – and then bringing his cohorts back up and onto the road with similar precision. If jazz is your thing, you’re out of your mind if you’re in town and you don’t catch these guys while they’re at the Vanguard this August.

June 26, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The JD Allen Trio – Shine!

There is no other composer in any other genre who is so completely on top of his game as tenor sax player JD Allen is right now, and thankfully he had the foresight to get back into the studio while he’s hot. This new one proves that last year’s release, the darkly majestic I Am I Am – a bonafide modern day jazz classic – was no fluke. “The music told me that it wanted to be called Shine,” he recently told WBGO’s Josh Jackson with a wink. “I feel very shiny when I wake up in the morning…a nice quarter that I might find, a nickel or two. Shine is good.” In a sense, the new album is an extension of the terse, four-minute “jukebox jazz” style the group mined so richly as a suite on the previous cd, here adding a somewhat more vintage, exploratory Pharaoh Sanders edge. The trio feel remains the same, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston an integral part of the compositions rather than merely supplementary pieces (in a spectacular moment of triumph for Royston, drums very frequently serve as the lead instrument here). As before, melody remains absolutely front and center – if anything, the songs here may be even catchier, if not as dark. Allen’s stock in trade as a sideman has always been an ironclad, logically terse no-nonsense attack and that’s in full effect here. This is jazz for humming to yourself coming up out of the subway to the street where it’s a lot cooler.

The cd opens with Esre, echoes of the central theme from I Am I Am, Royston kicking it off with a flurry of drums, Allen entering minimalistically yet with a surprising amount of squall. Sonhouse takes an opentuned delta blues guitar riff and soars with it over an understated funk bassline and Royston’s Niagara Falls cascades. On Conjuration of Angles, Allen serves as the the anchor, calm and assured whether gentle and stately or, later on, playfully breezy as Royston colors it wildly with a little help from a bitterly brief hint of a solo by August.

Marco has something of a signature sound for Allen, variations on an apprehensively circular theme.The title track is a surprisingly gentle, reassuring ballad, almost a lullaby, Royston rattling around with heightened expectations, threatening to spontaneously combust, but he never does. The rhythm section remains on the prowl on The Laughing Bell while Allen provides buoyant contrast: as with so many of the tracks on I Am I Am, it’s a masterpiece of matching timbre to emotion. East Boogie follows, Allen morphing an old Ornette Coleman theme into a gorgeously warm piano voicing over a comfortably syncopated stomp. A cleverly echoey rumble, Ephraim has August playing off Allen and then Royston. There’s also a cozy, trad swing blues with a terse bass solo, both Allen and Royston jumping out of their shoes on Teo, and a boisterously wary final tune simple titled Variations. And the next-to-last track, Se’Lah has the rapturous, spiritual-infused feel of a jazz classic.

The trio have some low-key shows coming up: in Brooklyn at Puppets Jazz Bar on 6/25 at 9 and at the Stone on 7/21 at 8 followed by a big six-night stand at the Vanguard starting on 8/11. If you wish you’d been around back in the day when Bird and Trane were kicking up dust, remember this era has its own great ones too: you might want to catch more than one of these shows.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Gregg August Large Ensemble at the Jazz Gallery, NYC 4/10/09

This year the Jazz Gallery has been commissioning big band projects. More musicians should do what bassist/composer Gregg August (whose powerfully melodic contributions appear on the latest JD Allen Trio cd, reviewed here recently) did with his. Leading a ten-piece all-star ensemble on Friday night, August proved every bit as potent a composer as an instrumentalist, playing a thematic series of pieces inspired by and frequently including poems that explore race relations. Interpreting the texts both literally and thematically, August’s richly melodic, aptly relevant compositions created a program that screams out to be recorded.

 

August’s arrangements maximized the ensemble’s diverse talents: Jaleel Shaw’s ecstatically fiery alto sax flights, Sam Newsome’s rapidfire fluidity on soprano, JD Allen’s darkly direct terseness on tenor and pianist Luis Perdomo’s vividly bittersweet, concise chordal work along with his own straightforwardly melodic, sometimes latin-inflected lines, many of them echoing horn voicings. Drummer Donald Edwards’ strategy shaded toward darkness with innumerable well-placed cymbal accents and flourishes. The night opened on an auspicious note with an interpretation of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Shaw building his final solo to screaming, gritty overtones illustrating the exasperation of confinement over the rhythm section’s staggered beat. Sweet Words, based on a sacastic Langston Hughes poem about (what else) bigotry proved to be a pretty straightforward, tuneful ensemble piece highlighted by a relentlessly intense, expansive Perdomo solo.

 

A New Orleans tableau, Sky, based on poet Richard Katrovas’s encounter with a possibly homeless young black man painted a stark picture of a balmy morning tinged with misunderstanding and regret, Allen’s lyrical tenor opening against pensively crescendoing piano and bowed bass, the group pulsing through a funereal arrangement colored by rubato drums. Perhaps the high point of the night was Your Only Child, a literal illustration of Marilyn Nelson’s poem A Wreath for Emmett Till, a recording of Till’s mother describing her murdered son’s mutilated body playing over the ominous atmosphere of the intro, singer Miles Griffith echoing the song’s theme and ending with a fervent evocation of sobbing agony.

 

The second set maintained the captivating intensity of the first, opening with the slinky, insistent I Rise (a musical translation of the famous Maya Angelou poem) highlighted by a joyous solo from Shaw followed by a characteristically thoughtful, matter-of-fact one from Allen. The lushly orchestrated, Mingus-inflected I Sang in the Sun (from the Carolyn Kizer poem) brought back the vocals, lowlit by some marvelously succinct shading by Thomas. A Cornelius Eady poem about an encounter with a racist in an ice cream parlor provided a solid platform for a slyly bluesy trombone solo and some funky work by August. The night wound up with Letter to America (on a Francisco Alarcon poem), impassioned vocals echoed by John Bailey’s blazing, bluesy trumpet and yet another uncompromisingly confrontational solo by Allen building to a casually intense coda. In a year of some extraordinary live jazz, a packed house got to witness what has to be one of the highlights of the year so far.

 

April 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 4/11/09

New reviews coming very soon: haunting nouveau-Romanticism by Botanica pianist Paul Wallfisch, vengeful vocal intensity from Larkin Grimm, powerful and socially aware jazz by the Gregg August Large Ensemble and tons more. To keep the front page here fresh, as we try to do every day, we continue our top 666 songs of alltime countdown  all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #473:

The Electric Light Orchestra – Showdown

Not the 1973 British blues-lite hit from the On the Third Day lp – this is the careening, absolutely out-of-control live version the band was playing circa 1977-78, building to a swirling cauldron of noise with all the strings going full tilt right before the last chorus. Then they do it again at the end. Worth digging through the files at limewire or elsewhere: the dodgy sound only enhances the mayhem.

April 11, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

February 7, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment