Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Grace - JD Allen

Personnel: JD Allen: tenor saxophone; Eldar Djangirov, piano; Dezron Douglas: bass; Jonathan Barber: drums

The recording begins with “Mass” (5:14) with an abstract, floating theme played at upper mid-tempo, having a vague waltz feel.  Eldar solos first, playing disjointed phrases in octaves and imaginatively toying with the tune’s theme.  Allen in his solo displays a rich, compressed tone and elegant vibrato, also toying with the theme, interspersing it with quicksilver phrases.

“Lode Star” (5:03) is another mid-tempo piece, though it has Barber energetically bubbling in the background.  Allen improvises in a loose fashion, drawing out long lines, occasionally recalling the theme.  Eldar’s solo is more driving this time, focusing on winding, Keith Jarrett-ish lines.  Douglas adds a brief snatch of melody to close the cut.

“Chagall” (5:49) starts with a series of chords from Eldar, then bass and drums join in.  Barber again plays energetically behind Eldar’s static chords and the slow theme.  Allen plays another vague theme and then a cerebral solo constructed of fast lines.  Then Eldar takes over, constructing a mini-composition of alternating fast and slow phrases and chord passages.  Eldar’s playing has a pinch of a gothic, Old World feel, as though he were performing in a dusty tea room in Prague or Romania.  Barber takes the spotlight briefly before the cut is over.

“Luke Sky Walker” (5:40) has a loose beginning, with all the players seeming to be warming up.  Then the rhythm players appear to be starting a swinging groove, but Allen resists this, leaving the impression that the group isn’t entirely sure in which direction it wants to go.  Allen’s solo doesn’t seem to quite come together.  Eldar’s improvising is more focused and in sync with the bass and drums, including some elegant chord passages. 

“Grace” (5:07) starts with an extended, meterless solo excursion by Eldar with loose accompaniment from bass and drums.  Then Allen comes in improvising, the accompaniment from his bandmates remaining loose, and the cut closes without any clear theme being stated.

“Detroit” (3:06) has a sad, slow, bluesy theme, which Allen plays with soul and emotion.  Barber again percolates against a repeated drone from bass and drums.  (The pianist lays out on this one.)  The cut fades out on Allen’s melancholy improvising and is too brief; I wish they had developed it more fully.

“Cross Damon” (6:11) has a slow, out-of-time intro, with Douglas playing arco bass.  The cut then goes into a slow, pretty theme.  The groove becomes upper mid-tempo, and Allen plays a cool, smart solo.  Then Eldar solos, sounding Keith Jarrett-ish again, and Barber closes out the cut.

“Pole Star” (3:36) is another tentative-sounding piece, apparently not sure whether it wants to be double time, swing, or mid-tempo.  There’s some nice interplay between Douglas and Allen (Eldar lays out for this part).  Then Eldar comes in improvising, again playing phrases in octaves and clusters of chords, with Barber very active behind him.  The cut eventually seems simply to run out of steam for a close.

“Papillon 1973” (5:23) has another indistinct theme, but it quickly moves into impressive, enchanting improvising from Allen, again with just bass and drums for accompaniment.  Eldar then re-enters for his improvisation, which is mainly linear this time, working hand-in-glove with the bass and drums. 

“Selah (My Refuge)” (5:59) is a change of pace, with a slow, delicate intro from Eldar and then Allen playing the earthy, melancholy theme.  Allen’s solo is too brief, played over the simple harmony spelled out by Douglas’s bass line.  Eldar contributes a fine, thorny solo, and Allen repeats the theme to close the cut.

Grace closes with “The Little Dipper” (5:03), with a slow, elusive theme in ¾ time.  Allen’s improvisation floats around Douglas’s insistent bass notes and Barber’s light drumming.  Eldar’s improvisation contains complex opposing lines, one hand seeming to converse with the other. 

Grace has an overall loose, languid feel with nebulous tunes, the group apparently wanting to rely primarily on interplay and serendipity.  Whatever success the recording has in this approach--and it has quite a bit—is mainly due to the sensitivity of the rhythm players and the Herculean improvising abilities of Allen and Djangirov, who are both typically captivating and never less than interesting.  I would have preferred a bit more structure in the cuts, with stronger tunes and more rehearsed collaboration.  By contrast, Allen’s recording Victory seemed to have more distinct tunes and a clearer overall concept.  At the very least, though, Grace is well worth listening to for anyone interested in hearing top-flight players interact with a minimum of structure (reminiscent of Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net) and especially for Allen’s and Djangirov’s complex, smart, engaging improvisations.

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