I realized recently that I’ve been listening to saxophonist JD Allen’s music for ten years. I first encountered his work in 2011, when he’d just released Victory!, his third album with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. That group ultimately made seven albums, the last two as a quartet with guitarist Liberty Ellman added to the lineup.
I interviewed Allen in 2011, and we had a really interesting discussion about his craft, particularly how he constructed his short, bluesy, hook-filled melodies (Victory! packed 12 tracks into a Ramones-esque 36 minutes), and about his perspective on work and artistic survival. From then on, I listened to everything he put out, and reviewed his records frequently for BA or for Stereogum. I’ve interviewed him twice more, once for DownBeat and once for an episode of the BA podcast, and I spent a day in the studio with him and his most recent trio, with bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo, to write the liner notes for his 2020 album Toys/Die Dreaming.
There are several things about Allen’s music that fascinate me. First and foremost, there’s the sound of his horn, which is gigantic. Like John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins or David S. Ware, he seems to be using the tenor to call out across vast distances. He rarely climbs into the horn’s upper register, preferring to dip low, emitting honking rumbles like an elephant with a cold. And he’s a romantic player; his melodies have a graceful, dancing quality that can be traced all the way back to Ben Webster.
This brings us back to his compositions, which are basically sketches; the first time we ever spoke, he told me, “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.”
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Allen left the East Coast for Ohio. While there, he recorded his first solo album, Queen City (named for Cincinnati). Now, the list of artists whose solo records I’ll listen to willingly, for pleasure, is pretty short — it’s basically Cecil Taylor, Matthew Shipp, and Keiji Haino. But I’ve been returning to Queen City again and again.
The album begins and ends with standards. He starts off with “Three Little Words,” which Rollins recorded on 1962’s On Impulse!, then “Wildwood Flower,” the longest piece on the record at 4:40. Those two tracks serve as an introduction to the body of Queen City, which is a series of nine originals that speed by in just over 25 minutes. The shortest, “Mother,” is a mere 2:01; the longest, the title track, runs 3:52.
Allen’s originals are less riff-based here than on previous albums. They often have the feeling of exercises, like he’s decided to explore one technical aspect of the horn in order to measure his own potential or work a weakness out of his playing. His usual incantatory lines are absent, replaced with an inwardly directed style that reminds me of experimentalists like John Butcher or Evan Parker. Sometimes the pieces seem to pick up where the previous one left off; the opening of “Vernetta” is a perfect continuation of “Queen City.” The album concludes with two final standards, a practically unrecognizable “Just a Gigolo” and a low, sorrowful “These Foolish Things.”
Unlike some other recent solo projects, this wasn’t recorded on an iPhone or under any other, similarly primitive conditions. Engineer Justin Newton at Monastery Studios in Cincinnati deserves praise for the rich, full, loud but never overpowering sound he got for Allen. And though it ends abruptly, that just feels like an invitation to play it again. This is an extraordinarily intimate record, the sound of JD Allen discovering anew who he is as a musician, and listening to it feels like eavesdropping, in the best way.
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