by: Matt Chasen
My introduction to tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen was during his stint as a member of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s quintet, a band which also featured the likes of Danny Grissett on piano, the late bass ICON Dwayne Burno and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Allen always struck me as a perfect foil for Pelt, because while both men have the ability to be extremely melodic, tender, warm and caressing in their approach to our music, J.D. Allen’s playing is often mysterious, cloaked, shrouded and reminds me of winding through narrow, hidden passageways within the caverns of an eighth century castle.
J.D. Allen surprises me at every turn in the road, and I find myself often wondering what he is going to produce next, whether it be within the context of sideman, bandleader, on recording or in a live setting. Allen’s latest album is entitled “Love Stone”, and was released on June 15, 2018 for Savant Records. His regular trio of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston is converted to a quartet with the addition of guitarist Liberty Ellman, a welcome metaphorical palette of colors for Allen to paint with. J.D. Allen’s interest in a chord-less trio has sustained in recent years, so the desire to bring a guitarist into the fold reminds one of fellow “saxophone colossus” Sonny Rollins’ musical journey from the late 1950’s into the middle 1960’s. It was during this time that “Newk” recorded a number of iconic albums such as “A Night at the Village Vanguard” and “Way Out West” without the presence of any chords, only to then bring legendary guitarist Jim Hall into his band during what might be dubbed “The Bridge” period, which resulted in an album of the same name that was inspired by Rollins’ nearly two year hiatus from public performance. During those years, Sonny practiced almost every day on the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge.
For “Love Stone”, J.D. Allen decided to focus almost exclusively on “ballads”, or selections that are normally thought of as being performed at a slower, perhaps more romantic, reflective and introspective tempo. In track order, the selections consist of “Stranger in Paradise”, “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, “Why Was I Born?”, “You’re My Thrill”, “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies”, “Put on a Happy Face”, “Prisoner of Love”, “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” and “Gone With the Wind”. My first impression upon hearing this album was that J.D. Allen brought the influence of tenor saxophone TITAN Dexter Gordon front and center throughout. Whether it was phrasing, inflection, delivery, timbre or tone, “Long, Tall Dexter” shone through brightly in the performances that Allen delivered from one track to the next. However, as I proceeded to give the disc successive listens, it became quite apparent to me that J.D. Allen had managed to achieve something that often seems to be a rarity in the society that we find ourselves living, as we stand on the precipice of 2019. He demonstrated a respect and reverence for the “ballad tradition” of such elders as the aforementioned Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, but he succinctly brought forth themes that are prevalent in our contemporary world.
A song such as “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies” is an American Folk Song, which was most famously recorded by the STATESMAN Bob Dylan, as well as such LEGENDARY “folk” musicians as Joan Baez, Emmy Lou Harris, The Carter Family, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary and others. To my knowledge, J.D. Allen may very well be the first so-called “jazz” musician to incorporate this song into his repertoire, let alone to record and put it on an album under his own name. However, Allen has made this song his own. The theme expressed in the lyrics to a song such as “You’re My Thrill” is timeless, in terms of reminding us of the immense role that love, relationships and matters of the heart play within each of our lives. A lyric, a melody or a musical phrase of some kind often has the ability to express what many would consider to be the inexpressible. Subsequently, the musician strives to do his or her very best to breathe life into the sentiments that are conveyed therein, making them jump out of the bell of his or her horn, the guitar, piano, bass, drums, vibraphone or perhaps even the human voice, for the listener to absorb, relate to and feel within his or her heart. To convincingly play a selection such as “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, takes a musician who has thoroughly studied the tradition of not only his or her instrument, but the culture that envelopes this music that we call “jazz”.
Liberty Ellman is a MASTER of subtlety, taste, shading and support, balancing the intricate, weaving and loping lines of J.D. Allen’s improvisation with his accompaniment, while stepping proudly into the soloist spotlight from one selection to the next. His improvisation demonstrates the multifaceted nature of his instrument, and how in one moment the guitarist has the ability to stand out and cut through the band as a whole, sonically, texturally and tonally. And yet suddenly, Ellman’s playing might become particularly reserved, selective and sparse, allowing his rhythm section cohorts Gregg August and Rudy Royston to take center stage. Gregg August and Rudy Royston have been performing with J.D. Allen for at least the past eight years, if not even longer outside of studio recordings that the trio has released. To say that these musicians have an innate chemistry, rapport and dynamic among them would be a MASSIVE understatement.
The synchronicity, dialogue and constant communication that exists among them is uncanny. The support, bottom, foundation and command of Gregg August is obvious from the first notes of “Stranger in Paradise”, and the harmonic framework that August is able to lay down for the quartet as a whole speaks to his virtuosic command of song form whether a chordal instrument within any ensemble setting or not. Rudy Royston is one of the most propulsive, transcendent, responsive, instigating, incisive and commanding drummers in the music today. Everything from his time, grasp of rhythmic complexity, depth, curiosity and awareness puts him at the very top of an impressive list of accomplished stick men and women who are pushing the time within our music on any given day or night. Royston knows exactly when and how to challenge both Allen and Ellman to climb the ladder of experimentation and expansion.
In the liner notes to “Love Stone”, J.D. Allen has written a letter to someone whom he refers to as “dearest”, in which he makes the case that he has taken the challenge to embrace his pensive side, “In all honesty, I was kind of mad at myself for wanting to do this, but soon realized that a ballad represents in every human story. I’ll never look at the words love, wanting and alone the same way again. It was actually very refreshing to not make up an alternate secret music reality for a change. This time around, writing and performing originals didn’t feel original…(laugh). Don’t worry, I haven’t decided to give up on writing my own stories; I’ve just decided to make a trip around the sun in a different kind of car this year.”
J.D. Allen has reminded all of us that the American Songbook is at the foundation of this music, and that in order to look to the future, one often has to revisit the past to learn the subtleties that are frequently glossed over in the fast-paced world that we call home today, for it is in subtlety that some of the most captivating material is found.