JD Allen – Radio Flyer
(Savant SCD 2162. CD review by Brian Marley)
The trio of JD Allen (tenor saxophone), Gregg August (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums) released their first album, I Am I Am, on Sunnyside in 2008. Since then there have been five more, all strong, culminating in last year’s Savant release, Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues. Whereas many saxophonists play more than one instrument, and in a variety of group settings, to demonstrate their versatility and (to mix metaphors) freshen the palette, Allen has stuck to tenor and dug deep into what a longstanding trio of like-minded players can accomplish. As such, these recordings, especially Americana, should be mentioned in the same breath as Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard and Joe Henderson’s The State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard.
Allen has, of course, recorded with groups larger than a trio. His slightly scrappy first outing, In Search of JD Allen (Red Records, 1999), was a quintet featuring piano and trumpet, and the much more tightly focused follow-up, Pharoah’s Children (Criss Cross, 2003) was a quartet featuring piano, with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt guesting on three tracks. Since then, there have been two more quartets with piano, Grace (2013) and Bloom (2014), both issued on Savant, both excellent. August and Royston played in none of these groups.
Radio Flyer is Allen’s first quartet that features his regular trio plus one other. It’s also the first time he’s recorded with a guitarist. The guitarist in question is Liberty Ellman, who, as well as having released four critically acclaimed recordings under his own name, most recently Radiate (Pi Recordings, 2015), is a member of Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, an ensemble that makes organically evolving music of mind-boggling complexity. Prior to listening to Radio Flyer, I wondered how Ellman, who shares Steve Coleman’s interest in bright, complex structures with strong rhythmic underpinnings, would fit with Allen’s measured, often metreless dark musings. The answer: surprisingly well.
At times Radio Flyer reminds me of David Murray and James ‘Blood’ Ulmer’s Music Revelation Ensemble, and the genre and theory out of which Ulmer’s music sprang: blues and harmolodics. Which brings us, naturally, to Ornette Coleman. Over the years comparisons have regularly been made between Allen and various other tenor players, particularly Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but on Radio Flyer, and the title track in particular, his tone, angular phrasing and freewheeling improvisational flurries are much more reminiscent of Ornette with Prime Time.
This restless, probing linearity suits Ellman down to the ground. Mostly using a clean tone, and adding occasional, very sparing effects to his sound, Ellman proves to be a fine accompanist, and his solos, such as on The Angelus Bell and Ghost Dance, match Allen’s for sheer inventiveness. August and Royston may get less individual solo space than they would when working with Allen as a trio, but essentially they’re always soloing, even if their role is largely supportive. The quartet play a tightly focused, highly disciplined free jazz that, while looking forward, seems simultaneously to hark back to an earlier, headier era of music making.