A Darkly Simmering Comeback From This Era’s Most Potent Tenor Saxophonist
Although tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s compositions gravitate toward concise, often slashing melodies, there’s just as much majesty and gravitas in his music. Often that ache and struggle and anger reaches Shostakovian proportions. Over the course of thirteen albums as a bandleader, Allen has concretized an intense, uncompromising style that draws heavily on bristling chromatics and every facet of the blues, from his breakout 2008 album I Am I Am, through his savagely insightful, blues-steeped Americana collection from 2016. His last couple of records have been a more improvisational quintet release with guitarist Liberty Ellman, and a collection of standards. And they have their moments, but his latest one, Barracoon – streaming at Spotify – is a return to form, a protest jazz collection initially inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s a more expansive take on the signature, three-minute “jukebox jazz” sonata-style records Allen started putting out a decade ago; the rage is more restrained, more veiled, but it’s still there.
Allen has a brand-new trio this time. Both bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo stick close to the roles that Gregg August and Rudy Royston held in Allen’s previous trio for the better part of a decade, although Kenselaar doesn’t dive as frequently into the pitchblende depths August would descend to, and Cacioppo’s rhythms here are closer to traditional New Orleans shuffle grooves.
Cacioppo punches out one of those second-line rhythms and expands a bit from there as Kenselaar slams his strings for darkly woody resonance, Allen blipping and dancing with a bluesy ebullience throughout the album’s title cut. The second track, G sus (that’s an insider musician joke) begins with Allen’s sparse, saturnine phrases and similarly sparse chords from Kenselaar (on electric bass this time) over scrambling drums, the bandleader picking up steam judiciously.
The Goldilocks Zone is a classic, catchy, suspiciously blithe Allen jukebox jazz number, with more than a few echoes of peak-era Sonny Rollins and an understated polyrhythmic interweave between the trio. In The Immortal (H. Lacks), Allen shifts back and forth between balmy resonance and acerbically wary lines as Cacioppo tumbles gracefully and Kenselaar – on electric again – shifts between stark chords and incisively trebly riffage, shadowing the bandleader,
The album’s fifth track, 13, shuffles along, catchy yet enigmatic, although both Allen and Kenselaar brighten as they move closer to a Veracruz-tinged bounce. Allen’s gravelly, darkly bluesy pulses grow more animated as the drums get busy in Beyond the Goldilocks Zone: titles really set the tone here.
Kenselaar’s anthemically dancing bass over shuffling drums opens Communion, Allen weaving his way through the methodical eighth notes of an unexpectedly triumphant song without words. EYE Scream is a longscale take on Allen’s I Am I Am modal brushfires, a plucky bass solo giving way to straightforwardly uneasy one from the bandleader
The album’s coda, and darkest track, is Ursa Major, Kenselaar returning incisively to electric, Allen shifting deftly between major and minor, Cacioppo exercising some welcome restraint. The trio close with the lone cover here, When You Wish Upon a Star, which despite all the fun the band have with it (Cacioppo’s cymbals are hilarious) seems tacked on. Where does this album fall in the Allen pantheon? Definitely in the top five, and that includes the killer Tarbaby record with Oliver Lake and Orrin Evans.
Now where is the album release show for this masterpiece taking place? The Vanguard? Jazz at Lincoln Center? Not yet. The trio will be warming up for much bigger stages when they play on July 26 at 8 PM at Bar Bayeux at1066 Nostrand Ave. in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. The show is free; take the 2 to Sterling St.