Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: Victory - J.D. Allen Trio

There weren’t many of the 30 Record of the Year vote recipients in DownBeat’s 2012 critics poll that involved up-and-coming sax players, sad to say.  Sonny Rollins (at #2, Road Shows, Vol.2) doesn’t count.  Neither does Branford Marsalis (at #20, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy) nor Gary Smulyan (at #23, Smul’s Paradise.)  Neither does Tim  Berne (at #10, Snakeoil), though that’s a tougher call; Berne belongs in the category of established sax players I need to hear more of.  Rudresh Mahanthappa made the list at #13 with Samdhi, but we just reviewed one of his recordings.  I suppose Miguel Zenon (at #5, Alma Adentro) could be put in this category, but I’ve heard him a bit, and he’s not quite my cup of tea, though I plan to listen to him more in the future to see if my first impression of him was wrong.  One person who is an up-and-comer saxophonist (in my vague sense of the term) is J.D. Allen, whose “Victory” came in as the 12th vote getter on DownBeat’s Best Record list.  I’ve been interested in him for a while, too, so I gave “Victory” a listen.  (By the way, Anat Cohen is definitely an up-and-comer, and she came in at #24 with her siblings, 3 Cohens, with their recording, Family; we’ll give her a listen at some future time.)

The opening tune, “Victory,” is a dirge-like, majestic tune that includes an optimistic, (dare I say) victorious tinge and features a slow, insistent bass line from Gregg August.  Allen plays an elegant solo, showing off a full and big sound that still has a lot of warmth.  Allen’s big sound is one that I associate with metal mouthpieces, and I was struck by how he managed to get such a warm sound from a metal mouthpiece.  Well, I then saw (see discussion of the “Victory” movie below), to my surprise, that Allen plays a hard rubber mouthpiece.  So now the question is, how does he get such a big sound from a hard rubber mouthpiece.  In any case, Allen’s sound on the tenor is one to be envied.
“The Pilot’s Compass” begins with a Rudy Royston drum solo.  Then there is just the suggestion of a melody, mid-tempo, and then Allen double-times it in his solo.  Allen as improviser comes off like a subdued Sonny Rollins.  His solo here is very solid.  Royston plays very busily (in a good way) behind Allen, making it almost like a duet between the two.  “The Thirsty Ear” is a free-form duet between Allen and Royston, with Allen sounding Coltrane-ish.  This tune has even less of a melody than “Pilot’s Compass.”  By comparison, “Sura Hinda” has a full-blown and assertive melody, eventually sounding like a Coltrane-ish tune, a sort of “Lonnie’s Lament” with hints of Miles Davis’s “Nardis.”  This cut has no improvised solos.  “The Learned Tongue” has free-form improvising from all three musicians, and that’s it.  Throughout the recording, the trio’s playing is very fluid, and it’s often difficult to clearly identify if someone is soloing or accompanying or filling in a few bars before the next solo.  This adds to the organic feel of the recording. 
On “Philippe Petit,” Allen plays a slow, stately theme, with August playing arco and Royston again dancing percussive rings around them.  (Petit is, of course, the tight-rope walker who walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.  And “Victory” has some images of a tight-rope walker on its cover, though I don’t know the significance of tightrope walking for Allen.  Is it because the tight-rope walker’s success is the ultimate symbol of victory?  Don’t know.)  “Motif” is an energetic duet between Allen and Royston.  Then an up-tempo melody is played with August joining in, then it’s over.  “Fatima” is also up-tempo and includes more straightahead soloing from Allen.  Then August plays what can be identified as a definite solo, and a good one, with a more subdued Royston accompanying him.  “Mr. Steepy” is also up-tempo; Allen plays a good solo here, then Royston takes over, accompanied by August’s walking bass.  Allen soon returns to close the tune.
“Stairway to the Stars” is a standard that the trio gives a straight, though fine, reading, without any improvised solos.  “The Hungry Eye” (what is it with the focus on sensory organs?) has August soloing with very fancy finger work while accompanied by Royston.  Finally, “Recapitulation (The Pilot’s Compass)” alternates between mid- and up-tempo sections, with Allen and August trading brief solos.
It must be said that one notable feature of “Victory” is that it’s…short.  It’s around only 35 minutes long.  (Heck I was complaining about the brevity of David Binney’s “Barefooted Town,” which is 55 minutes long—whopping by comparison with “Victory.”)  Nevertheless, it is very good, and, as good as it is, its brevity doesn’t work against it.  For one thing, there’s a very organic and seamless quality to “Victory,” like it’s a suite rather than a disconnected group of tunes.  (Maybe it should have been called “the Victory Suite.”)  Secondly, the length of “Victory” seems to suit Allen’s style; his playing is pretty subdued, and he doesn’t waste notes. 
Allen made a couple of interesting comments about the brevity of “Victory” in a brief movie about this recording.  He says (I may be paraphrasing a bit), “This recording is not song to song but one piece.  A collection of pieces to make one sound.  Not a samba here or a ballad there….I don’t like things being too long. I get the sense that you’re just babbling.”  If you want to check out the movie, here it is.  (Credit where credit is due: I learned of this movie from glancing at a review of “Victory” on the All About Jazz site)
“Victory” is a great exercise in restraint, elegance, and subtlety.  The members of the trio are so attuned to each other and their project that they seem to be playing only for themselves (which can be a very fruitful approach in jazz).  For saxophone players who think you have to play lots of notes and scream in the high register to be good, Allen’s playing on this recording is a good antidote.  “Victory” is somewhat adventurous given its low-key nature and commitment to terseness, but it’s hard to consider it adventurous since it goes down so easy. 
Whew, unlike “Victory,” this review wasn’t very brief.  I’ll try to learn from J.D. Allen and keep things shorter next time.

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