Forty-three year old tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen is a man on the rise. He was named as Downbeat's Rising Star in 2011 and has matured nicely in the succeeding four years. Witness his latest creation Graffiti, a tour de force of purpose and inventiveness. With this album Mr. Allen has developed a much clearer vision for himself and his sound. Together with the propulsive drums of Rudy Royston and the rooted bass of Greg August, the music sounds like it harkens back to the past while pointing us forward to the next step in the evolution of the jazz saxophone trio. The album is both a celebration of form and measured free improvisation.
From the opening salvo of Royston's exploding drums to the clarion voice of Mr. Allen's tenor on "Naked," Allen does indeed bare his musical soul. His fluent grasp of the language makes for an immediately visceral connection with the listener, a free form cry that one can still relate to by virtue of its recognizable form.
"Jawn Henry" is an inspirational tune based on the folktale of John Henry the Steel Driving' Man. On this song Mr. August's plucky bass provides a low register respite from the dynamic dueling of Mr. Allen and Mr. Royston. The two seem to be musically bent on recreating the man versus machine theme of the folk tale's legendary duel of strength and they do so effectively.
Allen composed all of the songs on this album and described his intention for each one in the liner notes. On "Third Eye" he writes "The saxophone and bass play rubato while the drums have the option of playing against type." To this end we find Mr. August establishing the heartbeat of the song . Mr. Royston playing against the tempo, as he so often does, with Mr. Allen left to find his own ground either with the tempo or as a counterpoint to what Mr. Royston is doing. Through it all Mr. Allen returns to a plaintive call that seems to unify the whole for the listener.
The song "Graffiti," as the title suggests, is a potpourri of color, rhythm and texture much like the radical, free form of wall art the name implies. With the short repeated line from Allen's saxophone as the only basis, Royston pulses, bobs and weaves like a fighter in the ring. August reaches for some grounding beat for the group to hold onto and Allen explores the color palette, disciplined but carefree. Allen's tenor has an implied sense of earnestness that is not something that can be contrived.
My favorite piece is the loping "G-dspeed , B, Morris" perhaps because its melody is memorable and heartfelt. August is particularly effective in anchoring the tune's march-like cadence as Mr. Allen plays between the bass lines with an easy swagger that is laid back and mellow. It is a dedication to the late Butch Morris who originated Conduction, a form of structured free form improvisation that allowed the musical conductor to direct an improvising group through the use of his baton and actions. Perhaps this association with Mr. Morris is the guiding light that has allowed Mr. Allen to create this delicate balance between the form and the formless, a balance he navigates so expertly on this album?
The economical "Little Mack" is buoyed by the walking bass line of Mr. August who keeps the pace of this blues right where it should be. Mr. Royston lays back on this one, punctuating the air here and there with a rim shot or a splash of his cymbal as Mr. Allen swoons over the melody with succinct clarity.
On "Sonny Boy" Mr. August's bass is again the lead, repeating a motif that allows Mr. Allen to play an ascending and descending line harmonically over the top.
On the liner notes Mr. Allen says about "Indigo (Blue Like)" Sometimes I feel like the most avant garde thing a jazz musician could do today is to try to straight up and down swing." My sentiments exactly. Swing he does with Mr. August and Mr. Royston keeping the tempo as Mr. Allen rides above it, simmering in a slow burn on his saxophone. His sound is uncluttered, heartfelt and swinging
"Disambiguation" is another take on the aforementioned "Jawn Henry," a seemingly endless source of inspiration for Mr. Allen. This time he does so with an openness of form that uses only the barest implication of the original melody to inspire the ensemble improvisation Allen is trying to achieve. Royston and August are free to roam the periphery of the melody finding their own way. This leaves Mr. Allen in the role of foil, responding to the free form dynamic created by his band mates. Clearly there is trust with this triumvirate of musicians, co creators of this ensemble sound.
With Graffiti Mr. Allen and company have created a body of music that leaves a lasting impression and hopefully promises more to come.