JD Allen, born in 1972 and originally from Detroit, but currently based in New York, is one of the most interesting tenor saxophonists around. His style is extremely restrained, simmering with the intensity of a John Coltrane ballad circa 1964, and his tone recalls both Coltrane and Branford Marsalis, playing in the center of the horn’s range. His notes sometimes murmur, and other times rise to a heartfelt cry, but he never abandons himself to free jazz screaming, or tangles himself up with knuckle-busting ribbons of notes. His phrases have a deep blues feeling, and his compositions are built around concise, memorable melodies which he repeats until they’ve sunk deep into the listener’s memory.
Allen recorded two albums for Criss Cross, 1999’s In Search Of… and 2002’s Pharoah’s Children, before his career (as a leader—he remained a very employable sideman) hit a six-year dry spell. Since signing with Sunnyside in 2008, though, he has recorded three albums for the label, all with the same partners: bassist Gregg August, drummer Rudy Royston and producer Richard Knight. The records—2008’s I Am I Am, 2009’s Shine! and 2011’s Victory!—all share multiple commonalities. Knight places the band in a warm, reverberant space, each instrument sounding full and pure, with August’s bass a heavy throb slightly behind Allen and Royston’s drums skittering, but never underpowered, and often propulsive. With only two exceptions, a version of Butch Morris’s “Conjuration of Angles” on Shine! and a reading of “Stairway to the Stars” (the standard, not the Blue Öyster Cult tune) on Victory!, each of the 34 tracks the trio has recorded is by Allen. And almost without exception, they are very short.
The interview is after the jump.
Do you play any other horns besides the tenor?
I started out on clarinet, but I don’t pick that up so often, as much as I used to or as much as I should. Mainly I play the tenor saxophone. My voice is definitely the tenor saxophone.
Why are your pieces so short?
Well, I’ll probably give you a different answer than what I’ve been giving. I just write down what I hear, and those are little hooks or little melodies. That’s what attracts me to music, is something that’s more or less singable or something that I’ll remember, and it just so happens to come out as little ideas. I’m primarily concerned with the improvisation part of it, cause I really like to improvise, so these are little songs that I have, and I write ’em down, and if I feel that it needs something else and it comes through, I add it on, but for the most part, they come out pretty short, I guess, at least compared to a lot of other people.
Do you ever write entire compositions, or just melodies that are intended to spark improvisation?
I have some longer pieces, primarily that’s probably with piano. But I’m having this love affair with these short melodies, these little hooks. If you check out popular radio, which I do, you’ll notice that the whole idea of a bridge is even gone now. I haven’t heard a pop song with a bridge in maybe 20 years. So I kinda check out what the mainstream is doing, and how they’re attracting people, and it seems to be that they’re interested in the hooks, something that’s gonna grab someone right away, because you’ve got to realize that in today’s world, you’ve kinda got to get in fast and try to grab the listener as fast as you can, so if you come with an epic piece, it might get missed. People just don’t have time to check it out. I mean, I even check out commercials on television, trying to figure out how it is that they’re able to sell a product in 60 seconds. The heart of a commercial is getting your idea across in a certain amount of time, reaching people and getting to the point. So that’s what’s going on in the world, you know. Get in and get out.
Back in the ’80s, the group The Residents put out an album called Commercial Album, where every track was 60 seconds long, like commercials.
I heard about this! ‘Cause I was thinking about working on a project with this director, Mario Lathan, who did something on my new CD. We were thinking about coming up with 12 commercials, with film and everything, and I would write the music to the commercials, and someone we were talking to brought that record up. I haven’t heard it yet, but it sounds pretty hip.
Yeah, their idea was that pop songs were one minute worth of material repeated three times, so they just cut out the fat.
Oh! [laughs] That’s hip! Did it go over well?
Yeah, it did. And some of ’em are really good little songs. Now, do you stretch out more live, or do you do 15- or 20-song sets?
Yeah, we average about 15 to 20 tunes a set. We stretch it out—if it feels like we can go farther, we take it farther, but on average I have 15 tunes per set. If we can go longer, like if we have to play for 75 minutes, then I’ll throw in a couple of standard ballads. I like ballads. But for our usual 45-minute set, 15 tunes.
There’s a six-year gap in your discography as a leader—what happened there?
Well, the record companies were still in full force, and I had yet to realize that it was kinda up to me to get things done. Prior to that gap, I made a record called Pharoah’s Children on Criss Cross, and it made a little bit of noise, a little .22 gunshot in the dark, but I was still young and I was thinking someone was gonna be interested in picking me up, and I could get some financing to help put my ideas out there. But that didn’t happen. And then along with a few other things, life issues that came into play, and the fall of the record companies, I realized that it really depended on the musician to get his ideas out there. But due to the times and what they are, we’re able to do that. I really don’t think if I came out with this record that I have now, I don’t think a [typical] record company would let me put out a 36-minute record. I just can’t see them letting anyone do that. So I guess it was perfect timing, you know. In this six-year gap, I got into writing and getting myself together personally, as a person and as a musician, and here I am.
Sunnyside seems like a label that puts out a lot of really interesting music, without courting the press the same way AUM Fidelity or Pi or Posi-Tone do. What’s your relationship like with them?
They’re mavericks, I really think so. I mean, first of all, François [Zalacain, label founder] told me “Look, man, anytime you wanna put something out, you’ve always got a home here.” So when you hear that kind of thing, at least for me, it makes me wanna work. I’m already trying to figure out what we’re gonna do next, for next year. But I think it’s a great record company in terms of, you know, they’re not prejudiced towards anyone’s ideas. I’m listening to all the releases that are coming out and they seem pretty diverse, which is great. They’re hardcore, and I’m appreciative of that. They’ve helped me out quite a bit.
There’s a hidden track on I Am I Am with Eric Revis and Gerald Cleaver—was that an early version of the trio that didn’t work out?
You know, actually, that was my original idea of the band I wanted. I really wanted to do this with Gerald Cleaver and Eric Revis. That would have been a great crew. But due to finances—they’re pretty busy fellas, you know. Eric’s playing with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Branford [Marsalis], and Gerald’s all over the world all of the time, you really have to book him two years in advance to get him to do something. So I couldn’t establish something with them, but I wanted that on the recording. I actually have some more material I would love to release one day, but due to this economic situation, people have to eat, they take other jobs, and fortunately enough I ran into Rudy Royston and Gregg August, which is my crew now, and I’m very happy that I have them. But originally I had that particular unit in mind. But Branford got a hold of him, and everyone got a hold of Gerald.
What do you see as the overall evolutionary arc of this trio, and where is it going?
Wow, that’s a great question. I really don’t know. I haven’t taken the time to stop and assess. I feel like we’ve grown, we’re a lot better than what we were on the first recording, but I don’t know where it’s going. It’s going somewhere good; I’d like to maybe do something with a piano or with strings, maybe augment it in some way, but every time we play it grows and grows. I’m surprised when I listen back, like, “Wow, we did that?” ‘Cause everything’s happening so fast when we play that I can’t really sit back and enjoy it. I get grabbed up in the emotional aspect of just playing with these gentlemen. But I can’t tell you where it’s going. I hope it’s going somewhere great. [laughs] I feel like we’re moving and progressing to maturity now, and becoming more comfortable playing with each other. And I’m just trying to find new material for us to play, and new material to present to the public. Maybe ask me on the next recording, maybe I’ll have an idea where it’s going. Or maybe I’ll never have an idea, I’ll just be amazed and enjoy the process. It’s like when you’re five years old, every kid wants to be six foot ten, at least I did. But you don’t know if you’re gonna make that point, so you kinda just gotta live day to day.
Something that interests me is the way the trio functions as an equal triangle. Cause a lot of tracks start off with drums—they’re not your rhythm section. How do you negotiate that dynamic in the studio?
Well, it’s funny you mention some songs starting off with drums, ’cause I work in a drum solo in the melody. I leave a space within the melody sometimes where Rudy has a spot where he can play. And I count that as being part of the melody. I don’t know what he’s gonna do, but there’s a spot within the melody that’s improvisation within the melody itself, that I consider part of the melody. And you’re right, it is a triangle, and while sometimes it might seem as if I’m the only person soloing on a particular piece, I consider it ensemble playing. If you listen closely, you can hear how Rudy is reacting to what I’m doing, and how Gregg is reacting to Rudy. But there are little sections I leave open so the guys can do their thing within the melody. And I got that from checking out Herbie Nichols. There were a couple of tunes I heard of his where the melodies actually had drum solos within them. And I kinda ripped that off of him. I can’t remember the specific tunes I heard, but it was definitely from Herbie Nichols that I got ideas like that.
I understand your trio was incorporated into a larger ensemble, conducted by Butch Morris, at Winter Jazzfest—can you tell me a little about that performance?
Yeah, VisionFugitive. That was a dream project of mine, to do something with Butch. I’m very influenced by his work, his philosophy on music, and just wanted to do something with him. And fortunately enough, he was around to do it and he was into it, and I gotta tell you, it’s a lot easier putting together two other guys than 15 other guys. That’s a lot of work, dealing with large ensembles. Basically, we were in class, and Butch did his thing. He had to refresh my memory about the hand signals and stuff like that; it was a total improvisation, with the exception of a couple of originals of mine that Butch did his thing on top of. In the near future, I would like to get in the studio and record something with Mr. Morris.
You recorded Butch Morris’s “Conjuration of Angles” on Shine!—what are the connections between your music and his?
Well, he had a celebration of conduction [Black February: 20 Years of Conduction] a few years back, and he asked me if I would perform some of his written compositions. That’s where I picked that tune up, and it seems, just from what I saw of the pieces that I played that belonged to Mr. Morris, that he was into shorter compositions also. There’s another composition called “Red Card” that I’m planning on recording at some point in time. They’re just groovy melodies, something that when you hear it once or twice, you can’t help but walk away singing it. It’s like, “Happy Birthday” is one of the greatest songs ever written. You cannot forget it. sing “Happy Birthday,” you’re gonna walk away remembering it. So the idea of having a memorable melody is very important, and he seems like someone that’s into that—writing melodies that strike at you right away.
The Morris piece is one of only two pieces on three albums not written by you. Are you just writing constantly?
Yeah, yeah, I try to write something every day, even if it’s just a measure. I keep a little notebook of ideas, and sometimes I might put two ideas together, separate melodies, and just work ’em in together and come up with something different. But I try to work on something every day. If I hear something, or I write down a title, something that might inspire me, or I get hip to a book, I imagine myself writing—I just try to keep it moving, you know. ‘Cause that six-year gap, that was a long time to not record any ideas, and I’m just trying to make up for lost time.
Can you remember a specific piece of music that made you want to pick up the tenor saxophone?
Wow! The tenor? Okay, lemme see. Well, I think what happened was, I remember checking out the G-Man documentary about Sonny Rollins when it first came out in the late ’80s. It came on PBS, and I saw that documentary and I was like, “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind playing that horn.” Prior to that I’d been playing the clarinet, but a situation came up where I didn’t have it anymore, and it just so happened that my teacher said, “Well, if you don’t have a clarinet, I have a saxophone.” So I saw the documentary, and when she said saxophone, I said okay, I’d try it, because I had really enjoyed what Mr. Rollins was doing. I think that’s my earliest recollection of thinking, like, this is the horn.
Who inspires you now, today? Who do you listen to when you want to get juiced up to go in the studio, or onstage?
Well, right now I’m really into this Ornette Coleman recording, Live in Paris 1971. Ed Blackwell, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ornette. And that, I mean, I just put it on the other day and thought I’d check it out while I was doing the dishes or something, and when I put it on, man, I could not get up. I couldn’t walk away from this recording, there was just something about it that grabbed me. They sounded like they were having so much fun. But it varies. I like the new Raphael Saadiq record that’s out, I’m digging that, I check out some of my peers like Stacy Dillard, Marcus Strickland, I try to look all around, you know? I try to check it all out. Classical music…or sometimes nothing. Sometimes not listening to anything is kinda cool, seeing what I can come up with myself. But that’s an isolating feeling. I tried that experiment of not listening to anything, but that’s a little too self-absorbed, you know what I mean? You need to hear what other people are talking about, so you don’t go crazy. So you can judge where you are. But right now, today, that Ornette Coleman recording, Live in Paris 1971, that’s what’s happening.
This is something I see from a journalist’s perspective, but as a musician, do you feel like New York has become a more collaborative, cooperative artistic environment in recent years than it used to be?
Yeah, I see that. It really was a bunch of sharks when I first got here. It was like, trust no one. And to a certain degree you can’t trust ’em now [laughs], but you need to deal with another person to help you achieve your goal, due to the fact that there isn’t some big record company shelling out all this money, so you’ve gotta hook up with somebody. So I feel that. I like New York today better than I did maybe ten years ago or 15 years ago. ‘Cause when I first got here, it was like kill or be killed. [laughs] It was something else. And I’m glad I experienced that, ’cause that’s good, that survival of the fittest thing.
Final question: You worked for years backing Betty Carter, so please explain the appeal of jazz vocal, and tell me how a horn player can listen to someone scat singing and not just walk off the bandstand and drive home.
[laughs] Walk off and drive home? That’s funny. Well, that was a very valuable experience, backing someone, especially Miss Carter. You know, the goal of any musician ultimately is to duplicate the human voice. I think at some point in time, and maybe this is happening less, you gotta check out singers, or at least know how to sing, know how to dance, or something. But the best instrument in the world is the human voice, because we all have that instrument. And if you have the gift of singing, that is truly a gift. So listening to her every night—well, first of all, she was paying me, but second of all, she was a master and she saw Charlie Parker, she sang with Lionel Hampton, and regarding scat, she really hipped me to the idea of melody, of learning how to interpret a melody and teaching me how to lead a band and what to look for in teamwork and everything. So I really think every musician should be blessed with the opportunity to play with a singer, because the demands that a singer places on an instrumentalist really help you become a better player. She really would give it to you when you weren’t producing. And it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t politically correct, it was really straight up and down, you know. And that was good for a person like me. I needed to hear that, like, “Hey, man, you’re not swinging. You’re not bringin’ it.” Today, I think a lot of younger musicians would walk off the stage and drive home. But once again, it’s about survival of the fittest, and I wasn’t gonna let it stop me. And I think she kinda knew that, so I stood up there, took it on the chin, got right back up, dusted myself off, and tried it again. I learned a lot from that.