JD Allen is this century’s most powerful, relevant tenor saxophonist. He probably has a more intuitive understanding of both chromatics and the blues than any composer alive. His technique is scary, and unsurpassed when he feels like pulling out all the stops, something he always does when playing his own material. His latest album Toys/Die Dreaming is streaming at youtube. How ironic that he would win a poll for “rising star composer” when his star rose a long time ago, and never went down, even before his landmark I Am I Am album in 2008. It’s time we put this guy in the hall of fame alongside Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, and Pharaoh Sanders.
Recorded in a marathon one-day session in Queens this past January, this is an expansive and often searing recording with Allen’s current trio, which these days includes bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo. Until recently, Allen was best known for crystallizing a sharply purposeful style he called “jukebox jazz,” three-minute songs loaded with one slashing hook after another. His last three albums have been more expansive: this one blends the concise, relentless intensity of records like Victory with his more recent, longscale adventures. What’s consistent is is the almost absurdly hummable, singable quality of his tunes.
The trio open with the standard You’re My Thrill, the rhythm section doing a solid impression of a flamenco band with their flurrying beats as Allen’s darkly bracing phrases shift through emphatic, intense riffage, that signature rugged, gritty tone never wavering. Kenselaar has obviously taken a cue from his predecessor in the Allen trio, Gregg August, his solos leaping between slinky melody and stirring chords.
Allen’s first original is The G Thing, a dark, bluesy minor-key song without words, with a tentative swing where August and Allen’s original drummer, Rudy Royston, would have thrashed the shit out of this. Allen’s lusciously Lynchian smokiness right before the end perfectly capsulizes his appeal over the years.
Die Dreaming comes across as a Moisturizer song with tenor sax in place of Paula Henderson’s baritone, along with savagely erudite register shifts and the Arabic modes that have become Allen’s signature trope when he wants to make a point. You want catchy? Purposeful? A bassist who’ll dig in for a chord if it’s needed?
Red Label, which the rhythm section brought with them after recording it with trombonist Peter Lin, gets elevated above (or maybe those of us on the low end should say below) generic slinky stripper territory into starkly smoky blues. Kenselaar and Allen team up in the F clef before the bandleader expands into what becomes more expansively lurid territory.
Toys, another original, is a classic Allen study in irony: predictably lyrical, bluesy sax, spare who knows what cutting loose from the rhythm. I Should Care, a familiar ballad from other projects, gets stripped to the bone, a stark portrait of white-knuckle, chilling angst. The three close the album with Allen’s blues-infused Elegua (The Trickster), Cacioppo shifting nimbly from a Royston Rumble to suspenseful swing behind Allen’s dark, increasingly sardonic runs, channeling a Yoruba god who won’t sit still. It’s a deliciously haphazard frontrunner for best jazz album of 2020, something Allen has definitely gotten used to over the years.