Smoke is a cosily atmospheric haunt that's removed from the downtown jazz club heartland, though a Broadway location on the Upper West Side still makes for a convenient subway ride. The place is smaller than might be imagined, possessing only a few rows of tables and a wall-length bar, all focused on the compact stage, its sound emanating into a room that boasts an excellent acoustic warmth. So, some of the battle is already won when the Detroit-born tenor man J.D. Allen hits the stage, accompanied by bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. This is the same team that recorded the award-winning I Am I Am in 2008. They're previewing material that is featured on the soon-coming Shine album, though presumably this disc will have individual titles and track demarcations.
In person, Allen rams the breath out of his audience, winding them with a reeling display of sheer professionalism, blooded by a completely uncompromising attention to visceral spontaneity. Over the course of two sets, the trio refuses to pause between compositions, or talk to the audience. There's no time for such niceties when there's hard-blowin' to be done. The scope of this trio's invention is enthralling. Even though the sonic formula doesn't alter much, mainly taken at high-density, in full-tilt, the vibrant relationship between the threesome never allows repetition to enter the proceedings. Allen's toughened solos are so electric that he impels a constant interest in his grapplings, his thorny, even old-fashioned, tone organically welcoming as opposed to studiedly academic. The second set does indeed benefit from a break. Some time to reflect on the passing storm, and gird the body for the next onslaught. As expected, a further uninterrupted gush doesn't fall prey to any flagging, and the soloing individuality of August and Royston is sufficient to compete with their leader's, creating a strengthened triangle of stormy perseverance. Allen is usually the focus, but his partners are almost his equals, making this a democracy that's won through fisticuffs.
At first, this gig comes across as one of those composition-commissioning gumbos, with no clear focus and a glut of various performers, a concert with the title Vox Americana, which essentially revolves around the writing of singer-guitarist Joel Harrison. Some sort of grappling-handle does become available as the two halves progress, but the program suffers from too much ambition, and too many idea-manifestations crammed into one evening. The first guest is Oliver Lake, who turns his planned saxophone solo into a poetry reading, opening the way for Vox Americana itself, a suite for seven players which utilizes fragments of recorded text. The message is broadly political but diffused into general, abstract snatches which lend an aura of protest without being particularly targeted. Sonically, these bursts sit uncomfortably on top of the musicsometimes too loud; at others submerged in the mix. Lake is the guest, but his soloing is underused, with fellow altoman David Binney snatching at least as much time under the spotlight. Towards the end, Harrison decides to deliver a folksy vocal, an act which compounds the feeling that he's cramming all of his versatile wares into the show. A feeling of tension pervades, and there's a sense that the players have not yet fully grasped the score.
Following the intermission, and perhaps sensing that the evening is becoming overcrowded, Lake aborts his planned solo piece, and Wendy Sutter gives the world premiere of Harrison's "Sonata For Solo Cello." The composer views this as a "meditation on mortality," inspired by the passing of his father at the beginning of 2008. It's a starkly atmospheric work, with Sutter mulling over every groan and grain, leaving plenty of space around her emphatic strokes. This piece is followed by the evening's best section in an already improved second set. Harrison has arranged a sequence of tunes penned by, or associated with, the drummer Paul Motian, cleverly retaining his character but also imposing the nuances made by a highly sensitized String Choir. There's an attractive contrast in the equally restrained guitaring of Harrison and Liberty Ellman, and some expressive soloing and interlacing from the other strings: Christian Howes, Sam Bardfeld (violins), Mat Maneri (viola) and Tomas Ulrich (cello). Lake steps up for Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso," making his strongest contribution in spontaneous fashion to an ensemble that he seemingly wasn't planning on joining (unless there's some confusion in the program). Motian's "Drum Music" is another high point, taking string delicacy to the edge of aggression. In the end, this second set redeemed the uncertainties of the first half.