L-R: Stacy Dillard, Marcus Strickland, JD Allen
The lineage of jazz tenor saxophone, from the 1920s to the present day, represents a legacy that living musicians must grapple with, night after night, on stages across the globe. On January 31 and February 1, three of the best tenor players around joined forces for a blow-the-walls-down show of collective strength at New York’s Jazz Gallery. The band, called Ghidorah, was called together by Marcus Strickland, and featured JD Allen and Stacy Dillard at stage left and right, respectively, with Eric Wheeler on bass and Rodney Green on drums. A video screen behind them showed clips of the Japanese movie monster from which they’d taken their name, as well as dance performances by the Nicholas Brothers and a tribute to Kobe Bryant.
The band played four sets over the course of two nights, with each saxophonist bringing in original music; this was not a “let’s-stretch-out-on-some-standards” gig. On Saturday night, Strickland began the first set by briefly discussing the history of the tenor saxophone and shouting out a litany of legends, including Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, paying special tribute to Jimmy Heath, who died January 19.
The first piece the group performed was by JD Allen, and his compositional voice — hooky melodies steeped in the blues, but with a steely core — was instantly recognizable, and an ideal way to start the night off. The sound of three tenor saxophones biting into a powerful melody was spine-tingling, and Wheeler and Green launched immediately into a loose but hard-swinging rhythm.
A self-effacing player, Allen let both Dillard and Strickland solo before him, and in the process each man established his lane. Dillard was the fiercest player, then and throughout the night; his solo was raucous and even shrill at times, recalling David Murray’s punishing squalls. Strickland, by contrast, burrowed into the lower end of the tenor’s range, with a thick tone like a bubbling cauldron. When Allen took his turn in the spotlight, he too used his first solo to make a statement of identity, defining himself for anyone present who didn’t know his name or his work. The oldest of the three co-leaders at 47 (Dillard is 45, Strickland 40), his playing was just slightly more restrained than the other two men’s, hewing closer to the melody but deploying a few fleet-fingered phrases, almost as a form of humblebragging.
The second piece came from Dillard’s pen, and kept the excitement level high. It almost had an old-school R&B feel, with a jumpy, vibrant energy befitting its origins in a trip he’d taken to South Africa. Strickland got the first solo this time, followed by Allen, with Dillard batting cleanup. Wheeler also took an extended bass solo, as he’d done on the first piece.
The quintet could easily have opted for an hour of these bluesy rave-ups; it had worked for Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, after all. But on the third number, Allen’s “G Thing,” they shifted gears, offering a simmering, mournful ballad in the mode of John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Strickland was up first, and switched to bass clarinet, playing an Eric Dolphy-esque solo that had a questing feel. Allen was next, followed by Dillard, who opted for soprano, continuing the Coltrane-ish mood but playing in a more abstract manner, at one point taking a wrong turn that required a second of silence to recover from, but the vocal and enthused crowd was with him — and everyone else — all the way.
The last piece of the night was a Strickland composition, “Pivotal Decision.” It was a fast bebop burner, and a perfect closer, with all three men back on tenor and tossing the ball back and forth like NBA All-Stars. The leader was up first, followed by Allen, then Dillard, and to cap things off, Green took his only drum solo of the night — a too-brief, kit-rattling eruption that had as much in common with hard rock as jazz. The three leaders wound things down in thrilling, high-speed harmony, each man’s unique voice making up one-third of a powerful chorus. As the show progressed, more names than those Strickland had listed kept springing to mind: Charlie Rouse, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Dewey Redman, David S. Ware… not because what the members of Ghidorah were doing was in any way derivative of their forebears, but because the tenor sax is the beating heart of jazz, and these men were keeping the blood pumping and then some.