When alto saxophonist Kris Allen’s quartet performed material from its new CD, Beloved (Truth Revolution Records), at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on June 28–July 3, the 140-seat room located within New York’s Lincoln Center was less then packed to the rafters. But the energetic quartet members didn’t let that minor quibble negatively influence their performance. The group’s playing was spirited and inspired, as though the club were indeed packed to the rafters.
A former student of Jackie McLean, saxophonist Allen recalls the master in both the structure of his compositions and his soloing style. That influence is never unquestioning, but instead feels spontaneous and inquisitive. The sparseness and warmth of Allen’s tunes compels on first listen. On June 28, his brilliant young quartet featured tenor saxophonist Frank Kozyra, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and fire-breathing 25-year-old drummer Jonathan Barber. Drummers Jimmy MacBride and Kush Abadey performed on subsequent nights, subbing for the increasingly busy Barber.
From the opening 6/4 tune “Turn It Into Lies,” the quartet performed as the proverbial well-oiled machine, Barber and Dwonszyk surging hand-in-glove through an Afro-Cuban figure, over which Allen charged and flew, swung and spun. Allen’s deep tone was regal, his flowing lines emotional and serpentine over Barber’s driving rhythms.
Tenor player Kozyra was equally engaged. Often, New York bands read charts and sound cautious. Allen’s group did no such thing; their familiarity with the material and each other was obvious and resounding, adding that extra inch of improvising energy and ensemble cohesiveness that turns a good show into a memorable event.
Herbie Hancock’s “I Have A Dream” followed. It was introduced by Dwonszyk’s high-register bass cadence while Barber bashed a rollicking, Elvin Jones-worthy assault. Allen and Kozyra split the song’s queasy melody over a 5/4 pulse, the former taking the first humid solo. Again, Barber stoked the band into heavy terrain—snare jabs, cymbal crashes and liquid tom interplay creating an atmospheric bed over which the solos flowed and wailed. His solo was a study in acuteness and drive.
Beloved’s “More Yeah” was a ballad of sorts, Allen’s opening solo setting up the song’s slightly off-kilter melody. Barber brought the brushes as Allen played a slippery, exotic figure that was doubled by Kozyra, the pair almost impeccably aligned.
Exposing his gift for unexpected and curious melodies, Allen counted off the fast tempo to “Threequel,” after which he and Kozyra executed a spiraling melody hinged with tart accents that wouldn’t have been out of place on McLean’s A Fickle Sonance, Destination … Out! or It’s Time!
Dwonszyk and Barber served up a sweaty, high-flying pulse; Allen rode it like a whirlwind. The quartet hesitated, charged forward, pulled back, dropped bombs, suspended time, then socked you in the gut, hard. They zipped up the club like a single organism, the air resounding with electricity.
The follow-up “Flores,” dedicated to West Coast drummer Chuck Flores, included a splendid mallet solo from Barber, and Allen closed with a final Beloved selection, the slap-happy “Lord Help My Unbelief.”
A band of firebrands who perform with all the energy of young guns still enamored of the big city’s glittering lights and storied history, Allen and his quartet tied up Manhattan’s jazz past and its vibrant jazz present with contagious grooves and kinetic compositions. Pray this quartet hits your town soon.