Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

JD Allen Reinvents Boudoir Jazz

There used to be a NPR clip of Betty Carter playing a New Year’s Eve show where in one of the night’s closing swing ballads, a young JD Allen took a solo that was absolutely perfect for what it was: wee-hour contented bliss. Many years later, one suspects that’s not what jazz fans are counting on from him. If anybody has that clip or knows where it is, holler back: it’s relevant to this discussion.

For the last ten years or so, Allen has been the Mingus of the tenor sax, this era’s most darkly tuneful, ferociously relevant and often witheringly intense player, composer and bandleader on that instrument. Over the past couple of years, he’s deviated from his often searing, modally-infused three-minute “jukebox jazz” to embrace the blues in all its many forms, with his savagely terse 2016 release Americana. Then he completely flipped the script with his 2017 quartet album Radio Flyer, a far more expansive and improvisational excursion, adding guitarist Liberty Ellman to his long-running rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. This time out, Allen has flipped the script yet again with Love Stone (streaming at Spotify), a cover album of ballad standards that bring to mind that mysterious, contentedly celebratory NPR moment but hardly settle for replicating it. He and the quartet are playing the release show on June 18 at Nublu 151, with sets at 8 and 10 PM. Cover is $15.

While some of these numbers are pretty standard Netflix-and-chill, a lot of them aren’t. Many of them are among the starkest and most spacious Allen’s ever done. “Playing the melody while knowing the lyrics is like drinking champagne and laughing at yourself all night long,” Allen asserts in the coy love note in the cd booklet. He also shares specific lines culled from those lyrics as a guide to where he’s going musically.

For starters, he and the group don’t reinvent Stranger in Paradise as much as they take it out of a straitjacket, substituting a gently and loosely syncopated, thoughtful if not exactly carefree sway, Ellman’s lingering chords first foreshadowing and then switching roles with Allen’s smoky, wafting phrases. Harry Allen (no relation) is more of a comparison than you would ever think, knowing this bandleader’s back catalog.

The take of Until the Real Thing Comes Along is closer to that other Mr. Allen with a similarly oldschool swing guy like Ed Cherry on guitar, the rhythm section a sotto-voce, slinky presence. Royston, playing with greater subtlety than he’s ever been called to do on album, goes to that same well again with August in Why Was I Born. Likewise, Allen’s melismatic tendrils curlicue and entwine, introducing what’s probably been the most spacious, Barney Kessel-ish solo Ellman’s ever recorded,

Fueled by Allen’s almost grimly acidic highs, “You give me chills” is the not-so-subtext for the quartet’s skeletal take of You’re My Thrill: August’s easygoing but spring-loaded chords over Royston’s misterioso brushwork make for one of the album’s most rapturous moments. The remake of the old folk ballad Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies has a distant, rivetingly Frisellian bittersweetness – it’s the closest thing to an original here and the best song on the album.

Likewise, while Put on a Happy Face has a muted swing, Allen’s occasional flicker of a microtone or sinuous cluster offers split-second context, a place in a much bigger picture. Prisoner of Love is anything but a prisoner’s tale – with a focus that’s both prayerful and gimlet-eyed, Allen and group leave no doubt where they’d like to go with it…and suddenly Allen throws the blinds open and the sun streams in.

True to the lyric, Allen brings more than a hint of his signature defiance to Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You). The album comes full circle with the subtly shifting metrics of Gone with the Wind. The most trad thing about it is how it’s used: it’s best appreciated (and most useful, believe it) with a snifter of bourbon and your dearest one close by. If your dearest one has enough lust for life to go out on a Monday night, Allen’s album release show could be your best date of the year.

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June 16, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JD Allen Brings His Restless, Uneasy Power and Tunefulness to Smalls This Labor Day

The restlessness and persistent unease in tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s compositions mirror how he works.  Much as he’s concretized a wickedly terse, hard-hitting, sometimes grimly ironic melodicism, he never stays in the same place for long. As a composer, Allen has few rivals in any style, let alone the postbop jazz he’s mined so intensely over the past ten years in particular. Yet he and his trio are also consummate improvisers. That bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston have a thing for the darkness in Allen’s writing explains a lot about their interplay, which borders on the telepathic. More than a decade of touring together will help get you there too.

Allen’s latest album is Radio Flyer; he and the trio are playing a rare Monday night gig at Smalls at 10:30 PM on Labor Day, Sept 4; cover is $20. If you wish you’d seen those great Sonny Rollins trios of the 50s – or the 90s – this group is on that level. It’s time that the jazz world realized that Allen deserves to be up on that same pedestal with Rollins and Ben Webster. The great ones aren’t just plaques in the hall of fame: some of them walk among us and maybe hang at the bar after.

On one hand, Radio Flyer (a brand of little red wagon) is your typical Allen album: ominous minor modes, plenty of stark bowed bass and rumbling drums, gravitas  and tunes everywhere. What’s different this time is that the songs are a lot longer than Allen’s usual three-to-four minute “jukebox jazz” pieces, and that there’s guitar on the album. Allen has never had guitar in the band before: how does it work out? Liberty Ellman is also a consummate improviser, so he gets where Allen is coming from. And if you’ve seen Allen live, constructing  a jazz symphony out of a handful of themes from one album or another, this is what that sounds like.

The album opens with Sitting Bull, Allen’s distantly American Indian-inflected, brooding sax panned hard left, Ellman hanging back in the opposite channel, August moodily in and out of the picture as Royston machetes the underbrush. Yet as dark as this is, when Allen pulls a funky swing together, there’s a joke, and it’s way too good to give away. He’s like that. August’s chugging, deep blues contrasts with Ellman’s pensively chosen phrases up to where Allen takes it out with one of his signature grey-sky riffs.

The title track leaves no doubt that this is another one of Allen’s sonata-like suites: nobody in jazz does theme-and-variations better than this guy. Ellman’s ringing, overtone-laced washes and Royston’s rumble along the perimeter contrast with the bandleader and the bass, steady at the center. Then they leave it to Royston to hold it together, Ellman’s long, enigmatic solo echoing Allen’s.

How happy is Heureux? Somewhat. Counterrhythms and echo devices abound through the loose intro, to a bustling, floating swing, yet neither August nor Royston ever lapse into a straight-up walk or shuffle. If only other rhythm sections were this interesting- or had this much fun. Ellman can’t resist, and pushes them hard when he takes flight.

The band pick up the pace with The Angelus Bell, with its artful-dodger tradeoffs between voices  – lots and lots of clever echoing and use of space on this album. Sancho Panza echoes the restrained, stormy majesty of Allen’s iconic 2007 I Am I Am album, August edging toward the Middle East with his shadowy, dancing, microtone-infused lines, Royston’s relentless prowl and Ellman’s mournful, spare jangle underpinning Allen’s bright but elegaic melody.

Royston’s tongue-in-cheek rhythmic japes set the stage for the rest of the band in Daedalus. a apt decision considering that it’s the album’s most straight-ahead number. They close it out with another American Indian reference, Ghost Dance, Roston’s sotto-voce cymbals misting August’s purposeful incisions, Ellman finally getting to take an opening solo and matching Allen’s deep, bluesy grandeur. You’ll see this album on many best-of lists, here and at NPR and elsewhere at the end of the year.

September 2, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JD Allen Releases a Characteristically Majestic, Intense New Album Uptown at Minton’s

Having followed JD Allen‘s career over the years, it’s validaing to see how much recognition the tersely stormy tenor saxophonist/composer has received lately. On the other hand, where the hell was the jazz media ten years ago? At that point, he had already concretized his signature style of “jukebox jazz” – concise, machete-sharp statements that for all their brevity packed a wallop as mighty as any other composer these days can deliver in any other style of music. What Darcy James Argue or Maria Schneider can say with eighteen musicians, JD Allen can say with three. He’s in the midst of a weekend stand at Minton’s for the release of his latest album, Graffiti, with his long-running trio, Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. It’s a group that like the Brubeck Quartet, or Coltrane’s early 60s bands, may someday be considered iconic. Sets tonight are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; your best and most economical bet is the $25 bar seats, since the sound travels well in the club’s historic space.

The new album both continues and refines the vision Allen began with on I AM I AM, the slashing 2006 variations-on-a-theme, a device he’s worked with each of his successive trio albums. You could call them jazz sonatas, spiced with ominous modalities, majestically savage, wickedly cutting minor-key riffage and key input from the rhythm section. One reason why Allen’s trio is so strong is that they’ve been together so long, a rarity in jazz these days. The other is that Allen’s compositions put the bass and drums as front and center as his magisterial, hard-hitting sax. While he’s capable of blustery volleys of hardbop, he rarely does that, eschewing gratuitous displays of fearsome technique for judiciously placed melody and embellishments, and both August and Royston maintain that dynamic. The former is as likely to add color and cumulo-nimbus ambience with his bow, while the latter – arguably this era’s most mutably colorful jazz drummer – gets to cut loose, completely off his leash, with explosive results.

At the closing night of this year’s Winter Jazzfest, Allen and his trio justified a headline status of sorts with a riveting hourlong midnight set at Subculture. Across town at the Minetta Lane Theatre, Rudresh Mahanthappa had just delivered a spine-tingling set of meticulously reinvented, Indian-tinged Charlie Parker themes, a spectacular display of wind-tunnel control, subtle dynamic shifts and commandingly turbocharged power. But Allen was the highlight of the evening and the festival. Much as the group kept a laser focus on the compositions, each number – drawing on a mix of material from the I AM I AM, Shine! and Grace albums – got an expansive yet purposeful workout, like a hitter methodically adjusting to a series of completely different pitchers and then hitting the ball out of the park. Royston volleyed and pummeled and shuffled, August supplied stygian gravitas, negotiating the pitchblende terrain with the night vision of a panther, Allen stunning the crowd with both purpose and technique, and a long series of duotone hooks to open the set. After an uneasy charge through a series of overcast, sometimes somber themes, Allen completely flipped the script with a couple of standards, as if to say, you think you knew me? But it was the originals that everybody in the room had come out for, and it wasn’t long before the band went back to them, shadowboxing with the weight of history and a relentless drive to bring some victory to the task.

June 13, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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