Victory! (Sunnyside Records)
JD Allen Trio
Released May 17, 2011
JazzTimes Top 10 Albums of 2011
Following the four critically-acclaimed albums, IN SEARCH OF, PHAROAH’S CHILDREN, I AM-I AM and SHINE!, Sunnyside Records is releasing The JD Allen Trio’s latest endeavor, VICTORY!, on May 17, 2011 – his third for the label with his longstanding trio. The album also includes a documentary film short by director Mario Lathan. The film plays an integral part of the recapitulation in the loosely-based sonata form and should be considered the final track of the album.
VICTORY! promises to solidify Allen’s reputation as one of jazz’s most dynamic and inspiring tunesmiths. Transcending a dissolute early life to create some of his era’s most memorable music, Allen has made much of his signature, melodic “jukebox jazz” in a trio setting, including week long stands at The Village Vanguard. Those gigs – one of them simulcast on NPR – and also this album feature Allen’s high-octane rhythm section, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston.
“Wasting notes is a waste of time,” says Allen. These songs, most of them no longer than three or four minutes, stand out for their melodicism and intensity, ablaze with memorable hooks and riffs by all three band members. Throughout the album, Allen and his band mates eschew long solos in favor of setting a mood or stating an intention and then following through taking the form of a classical sonata – a theme and variations which end conclusively – VICTORY! offers twelve succinct, interwoven compositions.
The title track sets the tone for much of the album, dark enigmatic minor-key gospel beauty played out against the rhythm section’s stately insistence. Royston’s aggressive introduction offers no hint of the balmy swing that emerges on the second track, “The Pilot’s Compass,” Allen interjecting commentary as August pulses and Royston supplies his signature, muscular rumble. They follow with the darkly biting “The Thirsty Ear” and then the ominous “Sura Hinda,” Allen’s solemn vibrato adding extra gravitas. As on I AM I AM and SHINE!, August gets an enviable role to play throughout the album, notably on “The Learned Tongue” as he shadows Allen while the drums go rubato, or on “Philippe Petit” – a homage to the French high wire artist – where his serious, bowed lines, equal part triumph and terror, balance against Royston’s playful intricacies and Allen’s calm, steely optimism.
The simply titled “Motif” allows Allen and Royston to take the theme further outside as August sits out. “Fatima” allows a playful element to creep in over Royston’s nimble shuffle; Allen’s nod to Branford Marsalis, “Mr. Steepy” enters with unexpectedly blithe swing blues, Royston eventually cutting loose with a grin and crowding everyone out of the picture. The album winds up with three unexpected shifts: “Stairway to the Stars,” a Harold Arlen-esque ballad; “The Hungry Eye,” centered around a vividly off-center bass solo; and the concluding track, reprising “The Pilot’s Compass” and elevating it to a rare sense of joy, ending suddenly with a bit of a wink. It could be the high point in a career of a group whose trajectory is still on the upswing.
1. Victory! 4:11
2. The Pilot’s Compass 5:04
3. The Thirsty Ear 2:02
4. Sura Hinda 4:21
5. The Learned Tongue 2:11
6. Philippe Petit 2:57
7. Motif 2:25
8. Fatima 2:56
9. Mr. Steepy 3:28
10. Stairway to the Stars 2:25
11. The Hungry Eye 1:44
12. Recapitulation (The Pilot’s Compass) 3:04
JD Allen: tenor saxophone
Gregg August: acoustic bass
Rudy Royston: drums
Recorded August 27, 2010, at Tedesco Recordings Studios, NJ
Produced by JD Allen
JD Allen hits unannounced. Before many of the patrons at Smalls jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village have settled into their seats, Allen unfurls an incantatory, blues-soaked melody on the tenor saxophone. Soon after, drummer Rudy Royston underscores Allen’s declarations with thunderous polyrhythms while bassist Gregg August propels the band further with his brawny basslines.
All three musicians are dressed nattily in suits and hardly break a smile-let alone take a breather for idle onstage chitchat. The nonstop hour-long set proceeds with a certain solemnity, even as the suite-like performance takes on characteristics of a hip-hop mixtape. The melodies and rhythms of originals such as “I Am I Am,” “The Pilot’s Compass” and “Sura Hinda” blend into one another abruptly. Sometimes Allen will be in the middle of a languid melody and then suddenly cut into an uptempo exercise built on a series of forceful riffs. A blistering improvisation usually follows. After the music simmers down to a low flame, the musicians leave the stage in the same manner they approached it-devoid of fanfare.
“I’m not really into the speaking aspect of performing,” the 38-year-old saxophonist tells me the morning after the gig, over breakfast in a small Turkish restaurant in the East Village. It’s late February and the air outside is frigid. “My point of view of performing is that I really want to come at it from a very gangsta aspect. It’s the ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude. … I’m going to shoot at you; I’m not going to give you a chance to walk away.”
If you simply equated Allen’s stage demeanor with his personality, you would be wrong. Solidly built with the broad, handsome face of a model and a lupine gait, he carries himself like a middleweight boxer. Yet he exudes an unassuming congeniality, especially when he flashes his inviting smile. “I’m a sweetheart,” he assures. “I’ve taught myself how to avoid situations by giving certain kinds of looks. But at heart I’m a sweetheart. Or I try to be.”
In conversation he skillfully balances restraint with revelation. He’ll come up with colorful allegories to describe his music and his perspective on life. He’ll exhibit great enthusiasm about being a working musician in New York, without skirting around life’s many difficulties and disappointments-of which he’s experienced more than a few.
Lately, though, Allen has been on an upswing. He has a sterling new disc, Victory! (Sunnyside), his third release with his trio following the critically acclaimed Shine!(2009) and I Am I Am (2008). Similar to the previous two albums, Victory! focuses on Allen’s etude-like compositions, and on the astonishing accord he’s forged with Royston and August over the past few years. Victory! also includes a short film by Mario Lathan, who’s produced similar vignettes for Jeremy Pelt and Gerald Cleaver. Featuring archival footage of live performances from Washington, D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns and New York City’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, the filmmaker aimed to get inside Allen’s head, rather than having him simply dole out biographical information. “He wanted something experimental,” explains Lathan. “His pieces are three to four minutes long, so we wanted to keep the film like that. The film is like the visual exclamation point for his album.”
Victory! is Allen’s most relaxed-sounding effort yet, with soulful and sensual ballads such as the title track, “The Learned Tongue,” “The Hungry Eyes” and “Stairway to the Stars.” There are also capricious moments like the spry “Fatima” and the ebullient, blues-based “Mr. Steepy.” Allen’s penchant for the dark and spectral is evident on the loose and turbulent “The Thirsty Ear,” and the hypnotic, Middle Eastern-flavored “Sura Hinda.” The 12 compositions deliberately take on the form of a sonata suite, as they’re grouped into three movements: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation.
Allen agrees that Victory! is comparatively more laidback than his previous two discs. “It has a brown feeling to it; it’s warmer,” he says. “I had over two hours’ worth of music. But this particular selection of tunes that I chose is the message that I wanted to convey. I didn’t want to tear down the house with everything. I wanted to show that I have a great sound and that I’m comfortable with me being me.”
Royston attributes the reflective nature of Victory! to the trio’s increasing maturity. “The tunes aren’t so jumpy, because we trust each other,” the drummer says. “In the beginning, we had this kind of abandonment when we played, because we really didn’t know each other’s playing that much-at least, I didn’t. We just played with the attitude of ‘Why be too particular?’ But now we’ve evolved to a point where we know when something is going to happen, so we can relax more and think more about what we’re going to do. It’s easier.”
John Murph (JazzTimes)