The Matador and the Bull is JD Allen’s fourth straight tenor trio album with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. That may be a record. For most tenor saxophonists, the trio is an obligatory, occasional challenge. For Allen it is an orchestra.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
JD Allen on the case. I once said the tenor saxophonist was a sensitivo in muscleman’s clothing who could make the most roiling passages reveal their heart. His trio, featuring bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, is one of New York’s great combos, consistently refining its confluence of Trane and Ornette into playful suites that often sound larger than they should. Listen to the new Victory! on NPR, and check the band at Le Poisson Rouge on May 18.
Small moves can create big pictures. There were several full sets I dug at Winterfest, but within them are many more curt passages or pithy exchanges that are still bubbling through my mind today. And they are…
BUTCH MORRIS FRISBEES HIS CARDS
The veteran improviser was leading JD Allen’s VISIONFUGITIVE! through an array of conductions, and things were going well. Rapt attention from his charges; inventive motifs that employed continuity and juxtaposition in equal measure. But part of the Jazzfest process is perform for perspective arts programmers, so in a nifty moment of wiseacre pragmatics, he flung out some cheat sheets regarding his innovative hand-signal system, and took time to verbally break down the way he gesturally interacts with his team. The set’s music was one of the most fun I’ve seen from him. That baton is really a magic wand, right?
GARY VERSACE TURNS PERCUSSIONIST
The band Bad Touch is comprised of saxophonist Loren Stillman, guitarist Nate Radley, organist Gary Versace and drummer Ted Poor. They play intricate pieces that nod to funk beats, wink to rock rhythms, and genuflect to the nuances of steady dynamic shifts. Precision is at their core. Well, it didn’t take long for their intra-band connections to start crackling, but one particular passage by the keyboardist proved his skills as an agent provocateur. As the group was mildly disassembling a groove, Versace bent over the instrument with a madman look on his face. Instantly he turned drummer, chopping the action with staccato chords that turned up the heat and opened a new pathway for his mates to slip away on.
NASHEET WAITS EVOKES STEVE REICH
When drummers Eric McPherson and Nasheet Waits connect with saxophonist Abraham Burton, they call themselves Aethereal Base, which to some degree is about “changing atmospheres and textures.” Don’t know what you call it when McPherson’s MIA, but Nasheet had very little problem becoming Burton’s lone locomotive at Kenny’s Castaways late Saturday. The saxophonist reached the conclusion of a roaring exchange with his partner, and Waits began to develop a cymbal-less drum solo that worked a “simple” African pattern into a deeply detailed drama that blended repetition and substitution. At one point his hands were moving quicker than a dude running a Times Square shell game. Glorious.
JOHN HEBERT DOES THE CHA CHA
Matt Wilson was using every part of his drum set when I walked into The Bitter End towards the end of the entire weekend. Saxophonist Noah Preminger had begun his set with Ornette’s “Toy Dance,” and Wilson had a harmolodic flurry of splash cymbals, tom-toms, snare, and high-hat bringing the noise. But the way bassist John Hebert was whirling and bouncing and swinging with his instrument is what stuck in my head. Up on one heel, down with a bit of a leap; the bassist bobs and weaves as he created his lines, which were short yet liquid phrases that spilled into one another to assist with the group’s momentum. Yep, he did some dancing of his own.
ORRIN EVANS TURNS CHEERLEADER
The pianist’s Captain Black Big Band said farewell to some of Philly’s recently fallen, and tipped the hat to the kind of large ensembles that like to swagger while they swing. At a wall-to-wall Sullivan Hall, they landed punch after punch – four trombones throwing lots of whomp into the cascading lines of the leader’s arrangements. Or was the up-front charisma of Evans himself that boosted the energy. Leaning forward to exclaim a great solo, standing up to bark out his exuberance, swaying and skipping when the music got to be wild enough to impress even him, he was one of the most physically demonstrative leaders of the weekend.
Also Vivid: Jeff Lederer‘s opening tenor salvo with Bigmouth’s set; if you’ve only got 50 minutes, kill ’em from the start. Avishai Cohen‘s trumpet blast at the tail end of his sister’s LPR set; a fierce assault that had no prob showing its sweet side. The grace of Jacky Terrasson’s bassist Ben Williams; during one of the pianist’s Jarrett-esque tearjerkers, Williams brought loads of slippery beauty to the table. Charles Gayle‘s fire; I wasn’t even watching the saxophonist’s trio (couldn’t make it close enough to the stage), but even while rolling through yadda-yadda-yadda conversations with pals in the back, the band reached out and shook me three or four times. That’s power.
He’s composed a beaut of an album, a suite entitledPortrait in Seven Shades that leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to places it seldom goes. The pieces are parallels to works by modern art’s visual masters, from Chagall to Pollock to Dali, and the sweep of their collective poetry is dazzling. From the winsome flutters of “Monet” to the Spanish swing of “Picasso,” Nash designs his mix of textures and rhythms to be genuinely evocative. And distinctive. When all seven pieces conclude, you feel like you’ve been visited seven singular environments. Live, there’s sure to be plenty of lift-off. February 4 – 7.
Audiences have really responded to the esthetic of pith that the tenor saxophonist has developed the last few years. His meaty solos are sharply edited, offering curt forays that quickly zero in on the eloquence. Last year’sShine! was a suite of sorts – each piece spilled into the next and together they resonated an informal unity. Allen had critics buzzing after his Winter Jazz Fest gig a few weeks ago. The addition of drummer Tyshawn Sorey (subbing for Rudy Royston) will amend the band’s sound, no doubt. Should be fun to see exactly how. February 2- 7.
A few of Wynton’s early playmates were deemed conservative, but check the recent work of Wycliffe Gordon or Anderson himself and you’ll find audacious solo after audacious solo. The alto saxophonist is steeped in the blues lingo, but he bends it in lots of provocative ways. Last time I caught him there was even a passage or two that took on Braxtonian outness. That’s called scope, and it makes the music that much more gripping. It’s been a minute since we’ve seen him (he’s living in Michigan these days) and that, combined with the fact that drummer Jeff Watts is fueling the fire, makes this an attractive gig. February 2-7.