Photo: Erika NJ Allen
JD Allen is one of the most compelling saxophonists on the contemporary jazz scene. In every aspect of his work, he embodies discipline. His trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston has been active since 2008, and has recorded six albums, including the brand-new Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues, out this week. (Get it from Amazon.)
When the trio first formed, they quickly established a reputation for extreme concision, recording tunes that hovered around the three-minute mark, and sometimes came in at under two minutes, particularly on their third album, 2011’s Victory!, which packed 12 tracks into 36 minutes. On more recent discs, like 2012’s The Matador and the Bull, 2015’s Graffiti (which was BA’s jazz album of the year), and Americana, tracks have stretched to the five- and even the seven-minute mark, but the band’s airtight, nearly telepathic interaction is as rigorous and thrilling as ever.
Americana is being described as a blues album, though it’s not that much of a change from prior trio efforts—the cry of the blues has always been a strong element of Allen’s sound, and August and Royston have always set up deep, throbbing grooves. But the compositions do hew more closely to traditional 12-bar forms, and there are two outside compositions: a version of saxophonist Bill McHenry‘s “If You’re Lonesome, Then You’re Not Alone,” and the Vera Hall song “Another Man Done Gone.”
Allen last spoke to Burning Ambulance in 2011; we caught up by phone earlier this week to get his thoughts on the last five years of music.
What was the genesis of Americana? What made you want to do a blues album?
Well, actually, the spark had started a couple of years ago, I did a recording with an artist called Jaimeo Brown, it was called Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence, and it was based off the Gee’s Bend singers down in Alabama, and we took a trip down there to meet them, which was kind of a turning point for me. And that sparked the interest in wanting to delve deeper into the blues in my playing. Every situation I find myself in, if I don’t know anything about it, it becomes a learning situation, and I start digging deeper, and I realized that was something that could improve my playing. That particular form, the blues form, when it was played by earlier blues musicians, was such an elusive form, I wanted to figure out what the connection was with what we’re doing now and how does it keep progressing, if that makes any sense. [laughs] It makes a lot of sense to me, and I know there are some things that you have to tackle sooner or later. I think I’ve been running from it for a long time—I did start out in church, but I’ve been running from that for a long time, and I just felt ready to try to at least have a go at it. So that’s kind of what started it, for me. I’m still learning. Even though we’ve done the recording, I’m still finding out new things that I could have done on the recording, that I should have done, and hopefully I can implement on future performances. It’s something that never stops, man, you know? It keeps giving and going, so long as I’m open to doing it.
It’s interesting what you say about the elusive quality of the form, because I remember reading years ago how John Lee Hooker, in the 1940s, had a terrible time finding a drummer because nobody could match his rhythm. He had this weird rhythm that he would stomp out with his foot while he was playing, and no drummer could lock in with him.
Wow. Oh, man. Well, that makes a lot of sense. There’s actually a video on YouTube of Ry Cooder and him playing “Serves Me Right to Suffer,” they’re playing guitar together, and if you check out John Lee Hooker, he has that form—the IV chord is in a different place than where rock musicians and jazz musicians usually play the form, when they’re doing 12 bar blues. So once Ry Cooder interjects his thing, he makes it a 12 bar blues, which is really interesting, to see the difference harmonically with what’s going on. So I can imagine getting a whole band to really roll with him was probably a challenge, if everybody wasn’t on the same wavelength, you know?
I feel like there’s always been a strong element of the blues in your tone, though. So who are the saxophonists who most embody the blues, for you?
Oh, Booker Ervin, man! Oh my god. The tenor saxophonist with Charles Mingus. And that Texas tenor sound. Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Ornette Coleman on tenor or on alto—a lot of cats. I think the heavyweights have that sound in their playing. Trane, Sonny, they have that quality, and I know just by listening to recordings that that’s something they had to deal with, so in turn I have to deal with it, too, if I want to get to that thing. And that thing itself is elusive, but that’s the cry. The blues is a part of the cry, and in American music, that’s an important element no matter what—rock, hip-hop, or gospel, or even blues or jazz, that quality is the human quality that translates across all idioms, and I think everyone can relate to that. I’m sure everyone can relate to that.
The blues is at the root of everything, like you say, but it’s not a vernacular music the way it was decades ago. So what are your thoughts about jazz musicians who are embracing more modern pop sounds? Who do you think is doing that successfully right now?
Who do I think is embracing the modern pop sound? Oh, well, that’s the state of the tenor saxophone now, which I think is cool. I mean, Donny McCaslin, he embodies that, hence he was on David Bowie’s last recording, which was great. He has that ability in his sound—he’s capturing that, the middle road where it could be pop or jazz. Marcus Strickland is capturing that thing, Chris Potter, a lot of cats—that’s the state of the tenor sound right now. I think that, I don’t want to say the blues element is gone, but there is another thing going on. I think the guys I just named, they’re definitely capturing that, and they’re able to get to people. It’s readily accessible, in terms of sound. They’ve got it, that’s where they’re going. And I check them out because that’s where the tenor saxophone sound is at, and you’ve gotta check them out to know—if they’re going right, I gotta check them out so I know how to go left. [laughs] But they’re doing it, man, and it’s beautiful. And there’s enough room at the table for all of us. But in my heart of hearts—I don’t know Chris Potter that well, I’ve met him a couple of times, I know Donny a little better—when it’s time to get down, Donny can get down on some blues. Marcus Strickland can get down. So at the root of it all, we’ve got that in common. I can tell just by listening to them. If they gotta throw it down on that kind of vehicle, they definitely know how to do it.
Yeah, I got to see Chris, actually, in a band that was led by Johnathan Blake, the drummer, and it was him and Mark Turner, a two-tenor front line, and they were doing some pretty heavy blues stuff. And Mark Turner’s another guy you wouldn’t necessarily expect that from, but it was heavy.
Yeah, I heard about that band! I haven’t seen it live, but I’ve seen a couple of things on YouTube with that crew. But yeah, the beauty of it is, everybody has their own individual fingerprint on how it goes down and, that being said, we can all be going through the same thing but how we deal with things is how we deal with it, and that comes out in everybody’s sound. And the jazz musician part of it is, I think, and this is just my opinion, I’m not saying this is gospel or the law, but we’re required to be Jedi in a sense, meaning we look in a lot of different places. We can draw from a lot of different things, and a lot of different ways of dealing with the blues. So yeah, I’m not surprised that Mark was throwin’ it down, too, in his way. I think on his last record, he did a Stevie Wonder tune, and I didn’t even recognize it! I was like, wow, check that out! It was very interesting. We all got different things going on. Which is good, and how it should be.
Your first three albums with this trio, the ones on Sunnyside, are different from the more recent ones—the most obvious change is that the pieces are getting longer. How do you see the group’s approach evolving over time?
Well, in its present state, I’m not so much a stickler over the time thing anymore, ’cause we established that we can do that. Honestly, man, this is our recording process—we’ll go into the studio not having rehearsed anything. They don’t know what’s coming, and I don’t know how it’s gonna sound. And this is the process: We get in about 12 o’clock, and we leave the studio by 11 PM, and during that course of time, we’ve recorded the album about 200 times. So I don’t do a tune and then do another take. It’s like a gig; I’ll have a set list, and we just play the record over and over and over. And then I go back, and there’s like 200 takes, and out of those I pick eight or nine, ten if I’m lucky, that are the best situations, and lately it’s been not so much about, let me make the three-minute mark, as let’s just have a good time and show our connection as people and musicians. So that time frame has opened up to six minutes. Or three minutes. [laughs] Now that I know we can capture a good eight bars on record, I’m not such a stickler for time. I just try to find the best situation. And it’s nice to throw the ball at Gregg or Rudy for a minute, to get their say into it, as a unit. That’s come into play more, and I’m happy about that. But don’t get me wrong—we might throw a two-minute thing on there, because that’s what the music calls for and we got to what we had to get to. But I guess now, at this point, in order to dig a little deeper, it calls for us to play a little longer. That’s how it’s been working out, at least for the last couple ones.
The Matador and the Bull was kind of a themed album—what inspired that? Were you reading a lot of Hemingway at the time?
No, I got into this for some reason—I’d never been to a bullfight, and I read that Hemingway was definitely into that, and so was Picasso, but I had this thing where I was really into bullfighting. I don’t know why I got into it, but it kind of symbolized dealing with something, as far as putting something to death. And I didn’t realize it until after we did that record, when I took a break from the trio and went and did some work in a quartet situation. It was man against self, that was the theme of it. So like maybe the album, The Matador and the Bull, is three types of ideas going on at the same time. So that led to Grace and Bloom, which had many ideas going on, brought together by a melodic thing. That’s where I was at the time, trying to deal with some personal demons and put some things finally to rest, and that was the statement. And I have this thing, man, when I write a tune about something, that’s usually the end of that situation, good or bad. And that was a period in my life, and that’s how The Matador and the Bull happened. But the tune on that album that scared the hell out of me [laughs] was one called “Santa Maria (Mother).” And it scared me because of this simple fact: There’s no written music to that song. I had a dream about something, and I described the dream to Gregg and Rudy, and they fuckin’ played it, man, and it scared the shit out of me. It really did. I felt like, man, I was afraid of not growing anymore and—it’s not a great take, but I was so amazed that from this dream, we were all able to actually compose something at the same time, on the spot, and it worked. And that frightened me. So I decided to do a quartet, ’cause I was worried. I said man, maybe this is it. Maybe we’ve peaked, if I can go into a studio and not have music and we can do this, maybe it’s over. That was the death of a lot of things in a lot of ways. But that one tune in particular scared the hell out of me. [laughs] It’s a one-of-a-kind tune; I don’t think we could ever play that tune again. We haven’t, actually.
You had Jonathan Barber on drums on both of those quartet albums; how would you contrast his playing with Rudy’s?
I think his cymbal beat is different. You know, it’s interesting, because when you deal with players, drummers in particular, who have worked with Wallace Roney, there’s another kind of sensibility, and he had that particular fluid-type thing. Which Rudy has also—Rudy’s a serious chameleon. You can catch him with Bill Frisell and it’s one kind of thing, or with Rudresh Mahanthappa, it’s another kind of thing, and classical music and it’s another kind of thing, but Jonathan has a cymbal beat that is very fluid, and I felt that although he can have this type of playing in terms of commitment to the beat, he has the ability to be allusive to the beat, and that’s where I wanted to go. I wanted something that had the essence of swinging, but it also had the essence of something that was totally non-committed to the form. And he has that ability. On Grace, I went into the studio with three sketches, and we were able to make seven tunes out of that, so it was really about trying to figure out, OK, what the hell am I gonna do with a quartet? I wanted to deal with the piano in a sonic type way. Bloom was in my opinion a little more mature version of Grace. But the one key element, and why I kept Jonathan, was because it was really based off of his cymbal beat, his ability to be light. He was like a featherweight. You know a featherweight is strong, man—that’s like the common man in top shape being a fighter, he’s a featherweight, which doesn’t diminish his greatness, whereas Rudy, in my opinion, is more like a heavyweight. He’s closer to the earth, and closer to the church, I feel. So it’s a different kind of power, but they’re both my favorites, you know. And for those particular recordings, I don’t even know if he realizes it, but he was really the key to a lot of that work. I still want to get back to that—playing in forms, and straight up and down swinging it.
The last album, Graffiti, opens with a saxophone-drums duo that’s pretty intense, but there’s a bouncy, lighter feel to it, too…where did that come from?
The thing about Graffiti is, how it actually went down was, Gregg was late to the session due to traffic. We recorded in this studio in New Jersey, and Gregg was late getting in, so me and Rudy were just playing, going over the tune, and that was the take that worked. There’s also a bass version of that which was cool, but I felt like that was the better version. For me, I’m listening to what Rudy’s doing on his bass drum. That’s providing that bounce, and I’m just trying to react, hang on for dear life and stay as melodic as possible, to outline the form just off of Rudy. It may seem like we’re playing a theme, but there are some changes to it, just without bass. Hence the name “Naked.” That’s where that came from. No bass.
I mentioned earlier that you switched labels about five years ago, moving from Sunnyside to Savant, and since then, you’ve made an album a year. Jeremy Pelt is on HighNote, which is the same company, and he does an album a year, too. Is that what those guys expect from you, or is it your own creativity pushing you forward?
Well, I think it’s a little of both. It’s great in this day and age to deal with a company that allows you to do that and provides the means for doing it. Sunnyside was a different situation, at least for me; they provided distribution, and I had to pull together the funds, or talk to Rudy and Gregg and see if they were willing to do things. But I think that solidified our loyalty, you know, because they did some things for me that I don’t know if I could get anybody else to do. So when Savant came around, they covered some things that maybe I couldn’t cover every year, and make a record every year. And I have to say I like that, because I’m already working on something new. They provide the means to be able to do that—studio costs, paying the cats, so I like it because it keeps me busy, like, we recorded in January and I’m already working on another project because I know at the top of the year is when I usually record, so I have to have something together. So I like trying to be as prolific as possible, it keeps the juices flowing. And I think that’s the same for Jeremy, also. I played with him for five or six years, and he was always gathering material for the next situation. Maybe that is a thing with the label. I know he records every year, I’m not quite sure about everybody else, but I know me and him are definitely gonna do something every year [laughs]. I enjoy it. You should always have something to say. I hear cats, and there’s nothing wrong with it, I hear people say ‘Oh, I’m not inspired’ or ‘I’ll record something when I’ve got something to say.’ I don’t know if I necessarily believe in that. I like what Prokofiev, the Russian composer’s take on it: This is work. You’ve always got something to work on. It’s not about being inspired, it’s about continuously trying to work. So hey, if that once a year schedule forces me to come up with an idea, and I’m fortunate enough that they provide a vehicle for me.
At some point a few years ago, you were working on a large ensemble project based on Butch Morris’s ideas…
Still workin’ on it, man! [laughs] Oh my god. I don’t know. I think that’s the big one for me, to try and get over, because—I like the smaller things because it can vary every time, there can be variations every time we play it. If it’s just me playing the melody, you know, I can change something, or if I need to move on the fly, the trio and sometimes the quartet can move as fast as I want them to. If there’s more than three or four, you have to consider getting more people on board, so I like being able to move fast. I’m trying to figure out a situation where I can have the freedom of a trio, maybe the sonic thing of the piano, and if I can find that in a bigger situation, a vehicle for that, then I would be happy, but until I can get that type of thing, I don’t know about recording for a bigger project. But that would be fun to do. I might need a couple of years for what I really, really wanna do, which might involve me taking composing lessons or arranging classes from somebody. Maybe [bassist] Ben Wolfe could help me with that, I don’t know.
Orrin Evans, for his big band, David Gibson, the trombone player, does a lot of his orchestrations.
Yeah, and the lead altoist, Todd Bashore, I think he does a lot of stuff, but I don’t know, man, we’ll see. There was a situation in North Carolina, there’s a great program in Greensboro run by a saxophonist named Chad Eby, his students did some arrangements of our trio stuff for big band, and hearing that – man, when I first heard it, it brought a tear to my eye. I was like, Damn. First of all, you guys took the time to listen to it; second, you took the time to arrange it; and it was great! It was weird to hear some of my stuff like that, in so many voices. So that kinda opened me up to it a little more than had I not heard it, but I need more time, cause I’ve got a year to get it together and what I really, really want to do might take more time. I wanted to do something with strings—I was talking to this string quartet, we were talking about getting together. I had an idea for a ballet. I have a lot of ideas, but picking a ball out of the air and saying, OK, this is what I’m gonna do…I just gotta maybe get a little more courageous and do it.