There used to be a NPR clip of Betty Carter playing a New Year’s Eve show where in one of the night’s closing swing ballads, a young JD Allen took a solo that was absolutely perfect for what it was: wee-hour contented bliss. Many years later, one suspects that’s not what jazz fans are counting on from him. If anybody has that clip or knows where it is, holler back: it’s relevant to this discussion.
For the last ten years or so, Allen has been the Mingus of the tenor sax, this era’s most darkly tuneful, ferociously relevant and often witheringly intense player, composer and bandleader on that instrument. Over the past couple of years, he’s deviated from his often searing, modally-infused three-minute “jukebox jazz” to embrace the blues in all its many forms, with his savagely terse 2016 release Americana. Then he completely flipped the script with his 2017 quartet album Radio Flyer, a far more expansive and improvisational excursion, adding guitarist Liberty Ellman to his long-running rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. This time out, Allen has flipped the script yet again with Love Stone (streaming at Spotify), a cover album of ballad standards that bring to mind that mysterious, contentedly celebratory NPR moment but hardly settle for replicating it. He and the quartet are playing the release show on June 18 at Nublu 151, with sets at 8 and 10 PM. Cover is $15.
While some of these numbers are pretty standard Netflix-and-chill, a lot of them aren’t. Many of them are among the starkest and most spacious Allen’s ever done. “Playing the melody while knowing the lyrics is like drinking champagne and laughing at yourself all night long,” Allen asserts in the coy love note in the cd booklet. He also shares specific lines culled from those lyrics as a guide to where he’s going musically.
For starters, he and the group don’t reinvent Stranger in Paradise as much as they take it out of a straitjacket, substituting a gently and loosely syncopated, thoughtful if not exactly carefree sway, Ellman’s lingering chords first foreshadowing and then switching roles with Allen’s smoky, wafting phrases. Harry Allen (no relation) is more of a comparison than you would ever think, knowing this bandleader’s back catalog.
The take of Until the Real Thing Comes Along is closer to that other Mr. Allen with a similarly oldschool swing guy like Ed Cherry on guitar, the rhythm section a sotto-voce, slinky presence. Royston, playing with greater subtlety than he’s ever been called to do on album, goes to that same well again with August in Why Was I Born. Likewise, Allen’s melismatic tendrils curlicue and entwine, introducing what’s probably been the most spacious, Barney Kessel-ish solo Ellman’s ever recorded,
Fueled by Allen’s almost grimly acidic highs, “You give me chills” is the not-so-subtext for the quartet’s skeletal take of You’re My Thrill: August’s easygoing but spring-loaded chords over Royston’s misterioso brushwork make for one of the album’s most rapturous moments. The remake of the old folk ballad Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies has a distant, rivetingly Frisellian bittersweetness – it’s the closest thing to an original here and the best song on the album.
Likewise, while Put on a Happy Face has a muted swing, Allen’s occasional flicker of a microtone or sinuous cluster offers split-second context, a place in a much bigger picture. Prisoner of Love is anything but a prisoner’s tale – with a focus that’s both prayerful and gimlet-eyed, Allen and group leave no doubt where they’d like to go with it…and suddenly Allen throws the blinds open and the sun streams in.
True to the lyric, Allen brings more than a hint of his signature defiance to Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You). The album comes full circle with the subtly shifting metrics of Gone with the Wind. The most trad thing about it is how it’s used: it’s best appreciated (and most useful, believe it) with a snifter of bourbon and your dearest one close by. If your dearest one has enough lust for life to go out on a Monday night, Allen’s album release show could be your best date of the year.