J.D. Allen Credit: Erika Nj Allen

The trio format is frequently cited as one of the hardest for a jazz saxophonist because there’s nothing to hide behind—no chordal instrument, no other frontline partners. But that view tends to give short shrift to the folks playing bass and drums. Two of my favorite jazz records of 2015 are by saxophone trios, but neither one feels like a mere showcase for the horn players; they’re both deeply interactive band efforts in which the rhythm section carries as much weight and generates as much interest as the saxophonist. Despite identical instrumentation there’s not much similarity between Graffiti (Savant), the sixth album by J.D. Allen‘s trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, and Northern Spy (Stereoscopic), the debut recording by bassist Michael Bates’s trio with saxophonist Michael Blake and drummer Jeremy Clemons—but they’re both terrific efforts.

During the last decade I don’t think anyone has excelled in the sax-trio format as much as Allen, who has developed a quicksilver rapport with this band. Last year Allen released a fantastic quartet album called Bloom (Savant) with a different band and a totally different sound—but I’m thrilled he’s returned to the trio, as he clearly has a lot more to say with it. There are connections to the classic trio Sonny Rollins led in the late 50s with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones, exemplified by Allen’s unholy knack for working a particular phrase over, exploring, reshaping, and wringing every possibility from each melodic kernel. His beautifully grainy tone sparkles as he deconstructs each theme—which are succinct, earthy, and graceful—with imperturbable support from his band, which propels, cushions, and prods his improvisations. Royston has a light touch, but he knows when to bring the hammer down or chop up the groove in shuddering, rumbling explosions, as with his masterful performance on “Third Eye.” August is just as dynamic—his fat, woody tone fills out the sonic landscape, and his sinewy lines functioning as an armature for Allen’s probing solos. Below you can check out the album’s title track, a simmering gem that plays with the tempo like taffy.

Michael Bates
Michael BatesCredit: Peter Gannushkin

Bates goes outside of the jazz tradition on Northern Spy: he draws inspiration from Blind Willie Johnson on the opening track “Theme for Blind Man,” where he moans in coarse glissandos while Blake blows striated groans over a thick bass line, and there’s vintage soul on the bluesy “An Otis Theme on Curtis Changes.” His playing is more front and center than on the typical trio session. In lockstep with drummer Clemons they create a much larger, harder-hitting, dry sound that frequently dispenses with a swing feel for something closer to rock grooves—although a piece like “Roxy” proves they can swing like mad if they want to. I’ve long been a huge fan of Blake’s playing: he’s one of the most underrated saxophonists out there. His ability (and willingness) to pull back and work within the ensemble (rather than always strutting his stuff) probably has something to do with it. Below you can check out the sole nonoriginal tune, a smoldering stroll through the standard “The Days of Wine and Roses.”

Today’s playlist:

Stuart Saunders Smith, A River Rose: Music for Violin (New World)
Charlie Rouse/Seldon Powell, We Paid Our Dues! (Epic, Japan)
The Ovations Featuring Louis Williams, Goldwax Recordings (Kent)
Manuel El Agujeta, Grands Cantaores du Flamenco (Le Chant du Monde)
Riverside, Riverside (Greenleaf)