Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Revisiting a Searing, Classic Blues Record by JD Allen

You don’t typically expect a blues album to be tenor sax, bass and drums. Nor, in 2016, would anyone have expected JD Allen, this era’s most individualistic titan of the jazz tenor, to make a blues record. Yet he did – and his Americana album (streaming at Spotify) remains one of his two or three best releases, right up there with 2008’s game-changing I Am I Am, which signaled that Allen would go on a roll that he remains on to this day. He’s playing Smalls tonight, Dec 9 at 10:30 PM, leading a quartet: it’s rainy, it’s professional night and an ideal circumstance to catch his relentless, restless modal power. Cover is $25. If you feel like making a night of it, drummer Dan Pugach‘s imaginatively arranged nonet open the evening at 7:30.

Allen opens the album with the slowly ambling Tell the Truth Shame the Devil, playing sparely, spaciously, with a restrained optimism, matched by drummer Rudy Royston’s judicious, minimalist counteraccents and bassist Gregg August’s similarly spare, walking lines and occasional devious harmony. In the album liner notes, Allen asserts with his usual acerbity that traditional African-American blues is hardly limited to the blues scale and the hallowed 1-4-5 progression, although in this cas that’s mostly what this tune is about, the bandleader waiting until the last verse before really pushing the edges.

The first of the album’s two covers, the classic Another Man Done Gone has August bowing stern, stygian responses to Allen’s brooding, characteristically modally-tinged lines as Royston prowls and tumbles: it perfectly capsulizes the interplay this band enjoyed over the course of a long run that lasted more than a decade. Likewise, August’s anguished, cello-like phrasing captures the horror of the song’s narrative, an innocent man kidnapped into the prison-industrial complex.

Allen solos judiciously and somberly over August’s terse, incisive vamp and Royston’s similarly restrained, tumbling drums throughout the third track, Cotton, up to a catchy, anthemic turnaround and finally a lusciously crescendoing coda fueled by Royston. August’s simmering chords drive an ominous Middle Eastern-flavored vamp in Sugar Free to a suspiciously blithe swing and a jaunty, New Orleans-spiced bass solo until Allen brings it all back home.

Bigger Thomas is one of those wickedly incisive, catchy “jukebox jazz” tunes that Allen started firing off one after another about a dozen years ago: as it shuffles along, he brings in the gritty modalities again. Opening with August’s slow, spacious six-chord theme, the album’s title track could be Jimi Hendrix without the distortion and the noisy effects, maybe a psychedelic interlude from Axis: Bold As Love.

Over a boomy, loose-limbed shuffle groove, Allen teases that he might leave the brooding passing tones of Lightnin’ behind, but he doesn’t. There’s a little Howlin’ Wolf in there along with some venomously funny interplay with the rhythm section. The album’s second cover, Bill McHenry’s If You’re Lonely, Then You’re Not Alone, gets a spacious, wistful treatment: beyond August’s brilliantly distilled bassline, most people would be hard-pressed to call this blues. The trio close with Lillie Mae Jones, an upbeat variation on a favorite, enigmatic modal riff that Allen uses a lot: imagine if Booker T. Jones’ axe was sax instead of organ.

Whether you consider this blues or jazz, this defiantly unsettled, frequently angry salute to a treasured but misunderstood American tradition remains one of the best albums of the decade. Although Allen has recently moved on to a new trio, and some surprisingly more trad gigs as a sideman with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and other big names, this more than any other recent release captures him at his dark, majestic best.

December 9, 2019 Posted by | blues music, 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