JD Allen – Radio Flyer [TrackList follows] – Savant SCD 2162, 53:23 [6/2/17] ****:
Saxophonist JD Allen ups the ante on exploratory jazz.
(JD Allen – tenor saxophone; Liberty Ellman – guitar; Gregg August – bass; Rudy Royston – drums)
Its significant tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s latest album, the 53-minute Radio Flyer, was recorded in January, 2017. It was a period when changes were taking place in American society and politics, and the current notions and future hopes of many were out of balance. It was the start of a tumultuous time, and Allen’s seven originals reflect his embrace of a higher plane of improvisation and freedom, of the need to move into new directions. Basically, as Allen states in the CD liner notes, “To express yourself without concern for consequences.”
Allen deliberately wanted to draw on the essence of adventure and revolution of fellow saxophonists such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and others. These stalwarts crafted jazz which echoed the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, and for Allen the post-Obama era demands similar musical exploration. Thus, Allen’s music is unconstrained, freer and more outward-bound than anything he’s previously done. No surprise Allen utilizes his trusted trio members Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. An important addition is guest electric guitarist Liberty Ellman, notable for his work with pianist Vijay Iyer and a long-standing gig in saxophonist Henry Threadgill’s ensemble Zooid.
The album’s confident feeling immediately comes to the forefront during the nine-minute opener, the avid “Sitting Bull.” Listening to “Sitting Bull” is a rich investment. Allen explains, “The idea was to construct something out of next to nothing.” Allen supplied a brief theme with no preconceived chord changes, and let the foursome create music of the moment. “Sitting Bull” has an emotive (even spiritual) timbre highlighted by Allen’s dark-shaded sax, Royston’s free-flowing rhythmic foundation, and Ellman’s guitar which finds spaces and fills them with notes and short chords during Allen’s solos. During the second half of “Sitting Bull” Ellman takes the spotlight and makes the most of it. There is also an intensified spiritual course on the nearly seven-minute “The Angelus Bell,” which gets its title from Catholic bells rung during specific religious instances. “The Angelus Bell” is a wide and colorful experience. The trio rockets right away at a fast pace with hardly any slow-down and everyone increases the tempo. August’s bass and Royston’s drums bolster the quickness, and the tune only quietens a bit when Ellman spins out amazing guitar extemporizations. Allen ratchets up the passion with a rapid sax finish.
A literary character is surveyed during the moodier “Sancho Panza,” titled after the ‘sidekick’ in the novel Don Quixote. Panza is the quintessential ‘everyman’ who is a symbol of practicality over idealism. “Sancho Panza” has a dusky aspect emphasized by Ellman’s strummed guitar and Allen’s sensitive sax. During “Sancho Panza” the bass and drums rely on a mid-tempo inclination, with some particularly subtle and nuanced bass elements and percussion, including Royston’s use of cymbals. Another iconic person is musically sketched out during the boisterous “Daedalus,” named after the father of Icarus, who tragically fell to earth when he and Daedalus attempted to escape from confinement with wings held together by wax. The obvious metaphor is people must fight tyranny no matter the cost. The quartet commences on “Daedalus” with a shifting groove and an angular construction, with a resulting and fascinating creativeness. Allen’s robust sax leads the way while August lays down an undulating bass undercurrent. During the final half, Ellman fashions a molten and attention-getting guitar solo which proves why he is one of the top and most underrated jazz guitarists around. The quartet concludes with the low-toned “Ghost Dance,” which includes plenty of Ellman’s layered guitar soloing. While the drums and bass provide a fluctuating underpinning, Ellman builds expectancy during the piece’s first three minutes. Then Allen enters with his centered sax and the tune’s quality becomes more propulsive and investigatory before coming to an end. Radio Flyer is an excellent Allen outing, which constantly benefits from risk-taking group interplay and a multi-directional approach.
The Angelus Bell