The return of the JD Allen Trio—their new album, Graffiti, is out this week; get it from Amazon—is very good news. Saxophonist Allen, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston last appeared together on record on August’s album Four by Six (reviewed here) in December 2012; there, though, they were joined by trumpeter John Bailey, alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and pianist Luis Perdomo. The last full-on trio album was The Matador and the Bull, released in summer 2012. After that, Allen formed entirely different bands for his next two albums; on 2013’s Grace, he was joined by pianist Eldar Djangirov, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Jonathan Barber, while on 2014’s Bloom, Barber remained, Orrin Evans played piano, and Alexander Claffy played bass. And while the music on both of those records, particularly the adventurous, occasionally dissonant Bloom, definitely had moments of greatness, the power and simplicity he was able to summon so effortlessly with August and Royston was missing.
Graffiti is kin to, but in some ways substantially different from, previous JD Allen Trio albums. “Naked,” the album’s opening track, is a sax-drums duo, Allen wandering around in the horn’s lower range as Royston batters the kit in a surprisingly bouncy way, like a man operating a jackhammer from a pogo stick. When August joins, on “Jawn Henry,” the group’s propulsive, melodic swing is immediately back in place, like it was never gone. Allen’s melodies are concise, little figures that he expands upon in a linear manner, while always making room for his bandmates to add their own thoughts—when I interviewed him in 2011, he explained that he consciously creates room for drum solos in his pieces. And while there may not be a specifically demarcated “drum solo” in “Jawn Henry,” the way Royston chops up the rhythm, shifting from toms to snare to twitching hi-hat, makes the whole piece feel like one. And he does get spotlight time on the next track, the moody “Third Eye.”
Here’s what’s interesting about “Third Eye” (beyond the bandmembers’ playing, which is uniformly brilliant): at 7:45, it’s nearly two and a half minutes longer than the longest piece they’d recorded to date, “Ezequiel” from their first album, I Am I Am, which ran 5:19—never mind how it stacks up next to “The Hungry Eye” from Victory!, which lasted a mere 1:44. In the past, the trio were known for short, punchy compositions that stated their highly singable melodies right up front, explored them just long enough to be interesting, then bounced to the next one. Victory! packed 12 tracks into just 36 minutes. Indeed, each of the three previous trio albums contained 12 pieces. Graffiti, by contrast, contains only nine tracks, and four of them are six minutes long or longer. The only sub-three-minute piece is “Little Mack,” at 2:25.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how long or short a piece of music is. It matters what you do with the time. And somehow, the JD Allen Trio have managed to play longer without allowing their expression to become flabby or meandering. “Sonny Boy,” running 6:08, is a taut exercise in disciplined swing and hypnotic tenor playing, built around a maddeningly familiar and earworm-ish bass line. The album also includes a simmering, introspective but not mournful tribute to the late Butch Morris, and an array of the group’s typically hummable, hypnotic melodies, extrapolated into thoroughly conceived improvisational interplay that gives each man time to shine without ever overshadowing or bigfooting his compatriots. The JD Allen Trio is an almost telepathic, three-headed machine, making some of the most exciting jazz around, and Graffiti is only their latest masterwork.
Stream the title track: