JD Allen’s Five Favorite Sax Trios

JD ALLEN TRIO from Les Films Jack Febus on Vimeo.

JD Allen’s trio has been refining its well-considered music for a few years now. The tenor saxophonist likes things to be pliable, and of course he follows his jazz muse to places where extrapolation thrives. But his inner editor is always riding shotgun on these trips.  Allen genuflects to the power of pith, so as he and his team examine a melody, they also sculpt it. Bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston assist the leader in nurturing such concision on Victory! (Sunnyside), the band’s third disc. Like its predecessors, it throw several punches – Allen has a yen for physical music – but always keeps an eye on clock. Being succinct is a primary virtue in their world.

“The new record documents a band that’s growing,” says the 38-year-old Allen. “We still have more learning to do about each other as people and players.  I don’t ever want to get comfortable.”

From the aggressive spills of “Motif” to the poised intricacies of “The Hungry Eye,” the chemistry is palpable, and the deep communication allows for all sorts of leeway. Allen remains inspired by his approach.

“People come up and say, ‘So you’re doing another trio project.’ I refuse that word. I don’t believe in it. When I was growing up, projects were kind of square. So, no this is not a project, it’s a band. I got some other ideas I want to get to, but I’m still in love with this format. It’s not a novelty. I think this is where the stuff is going. You can run out of those 12 notes and you can play every one of those 88 keys, but a good conversation will go on forever. And playing trio allows for that.” You can hear that tack in action when they get to Le Poisson Rouge on Wednesday night.

To celebrate the arrival of Victory!, we asked Allen to weigh in on five sax trios he deems key to the idiom. “It was fun to consider,” he says, “but in some ways I was pretty surprised at the bands I chose!”

Lee Konitz, Motion (Verve) 

Great record. I got into it a few years ago. Mr Konitz is smoking on this. The way it was put together? Wow. He used standard forms, but put his ideas on top of them.  He fleshed out something that was not so familiar, but on a familiar form.  Considering the school of thought he came out of, I’ve always thought he brought a street element to the music. They’re swinging hard. It’s Elvin Jones here. Konitz is very melodic. It made me want to investigate those standard songs. Those are tunes we all know and love. He dealt with song forms, but still sounded wild, like on “I Remember April,” you say, “That’s what this is?” Brilliant.  I heard a recording of him with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden, and they played “Cherokee,” which is usually a macho tempo thing. They played it clever, though.  I hope I get to talk to him some day, pick his brain.

JM: Ethan Iverson spoke with him about a few of these ideas for Jazz Times. The piece just went live today.

JD: I’ll check that out.

Yusef Lateef, Into Something (Prestige)

That’s another one Elvin Jones is on. There’s one oboe cut, but the rest is straight up tenor. “Water Pistol” and all that? Beautiful. But the one that knocks me out is “When You’re Smiling.” It’s so melancholy. There’s something about the way he plays it. When I listen to this record, I go back to that track about 10 times. If I could get that right…I’ve tried to play it myself, but I think I’ve gotta get a little older before I get it right. I read that Elvin picked all the tempos. The [band] maintains the intensity level, even though each tempo is the same. The music still manages to lift up. I dare anyone to try to do a gig like that. Playing every tune at the same tempo? That sometimes happens at jam sessions, but they don’t know they’re doing it. Speak No Evil has the same kind of thing, where every song has the same tempo – although they certainly manage to knock it out the box on that one, too.

JM: This was recorded in 1961, too, like Motion. Maybe guys were trying to keep up with Rollins trio-wise after Way Out West in ’59. Sonny put a lot of stuff into play.

JD: Could be. Way Out West, that record is like a movie, man. So thematic. I see it, the cowboys, the drums, the prairie. Mr. Rollins had a theme going on.

3 Sam Rivers/Dave Holland/Barry Altschul

Oh man, intelligence. Open ended freedom, but a really smart approach. I like what Butch Morris once said, “I’ve seen people choke on freedom.” It happens. Sam Rivers ain’t choking on anything. He’s informed. I hear the tradition in his playing, I hear adventure, I hear the search. Then he jumps on the piano. And flute. He calls it spontaneous combustion, which to me means  concentrated energy. He’s an improviser.  I went to that Columbia concert, when they got back together in 2007. I wasn’t going to miss that. Mr. Rivers is an older man, but he played with youth. He was vibrant, alive, informed. Hell of a cat, man, bad.

4 Branford Marsalis/Bob Hurst/Jeff Watts

I saw him when I was about 15 or 16 years old. First of all I couldn’t figure out how Jeff played like that and everyone could still keep their place. He played like an elephant falling down the stairs, except Branford was right there with him; they were rolling together. Later I went up and said “Pleasure to meet you Mr. Marsalis.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, call me Branford.” I got so happy. I wanted to be Branford when I was a kid. Thought he was slick. When I got older and I met him, I understood. His personality is right in the horn.  His music is his character. Comedic sense, timing, sarcasm. He always sounds like Branford. The personality shines through in various situations. Not enough people give him credit for his playing. This trio takes it to the paint. They gun it. I’m from Detroit. I grew up with the bad boys, the Pistons, you know?We like it when they play a little rough. These guys? Right to the paint.

Sonny Rollins, Live At the Village Vanguard (Blue Note) 

It’s amazing, and I mean every aspect that word implies. Amazing.  He plays older tunes but he sounds free. And the music is so raw.  “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” – it feels like a cat sneaking in somewhere, spooky sounding. It’s always in my mind. Before I got to town, before I ever went to the Vanguard, I could see the room through that song. It’s a picture of a New York club. When I got there, I was right. He described it perfectly. The pictures on the walls. I love every period of Sonny Rollins.

John Murph rocked this JazzTimes profile. 

Revivalist Interview with JD.

Will Friedwald profiles JD in the WSJ. 

Burning Ambulance interviews JD Allen 

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