Regular readers already know that saxophonist JD Allen has one my favorite jazz artists for nearly a decade, thanks largely to his limber, madly swinging trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. On a remarkable series of albums over the past decade—and a searing set at the 2016 Chicago Jazz Festival—this group has braided together motific improvisation and outward-bound searching, giving both an inexorable sense of propulsion and buoyancy. At the same time, it’s rigorously retained many fundamental qualities of postbop, particularly the distinct voices of titanic saxophonists such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Allen’s tone is reliably a thing of beauty, even when he occasionally alters this approach—as he did on the 2013 quartet album Grace (Savant), with a totally different band and a more pensive, inward-looking sound, augmented by the moody piano of Eldar Djangirov.
The trio is at the core of Allen’s recent Radio Flyer (Savant), but the album introduces some new elements: not only did he enlist versatile and inventive guitarist Liberty Ellman (also of Henry Threadgill’s Zooid), he also wrote the seven original themes as loose-limbed modal vehicles free of chord changes (a la Ornette Coleman), presenting them to the musicians in the studio with little time for rehearsal. After so many years working together, Allen, August, and Royston have virtually wired together their creative minds, and they easily hit their stride in every tune; Ellman follows suit and provides a lot of extra tang and harmonic fog. In the album’s liner notes, Allen explains his artistic choices as a reaction to the current political moment: “This is not a time of structure—it’s a time for all of us to use our wits and figure out how to cope and then to build new structures.”
Radio Flyer illustrates Allen’s investment in tradition and devotion to exploration more clearly than anything he’s done yet. Ellman is the perfect foil here, sometimes stating the melodies in loose unison with the reedist, sometimes playing against him, but never reverting to predictable chordal comping. On the title piece, Ellman initially uses effects to give his tone a washed-out feel, so that it seems to puddle around August and Royston’s probing rhythmic figures; then he switches to another pedal for a jarring harmonized effect, creating an ambiguity that Allen’s Coleman-esque phrases have to power through. Where Allen’s earlier trio records give you the sense that every single element is precisely where it should be, this one seems to ask why anything should be as it is—the results aren’t vague or tentative, but instead push against your attention, demanding some form of engagement. Below you can listen to the ferociously swinging “Daedalus.”
Maze, Anne La Berge: Raw (Unsounds)
Javier Perianes, BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Sakari Oramo, Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto/Lyric Pieces (Harmonia Mundi)
Ednardo, O Romance do Pavão Mysteriozo (RCA, Brazil)
Dre Hocevar, Transcendental Within the Sphere of Indivisible Remainder (Clean Feed)
Gun Outfit, Dream All Over (Paradise of Bachelors)