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JD Allen: Americana

Franz A. Matzner By

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JD Allen is an artist who always delivers. He is also an artist who takes risks, willing to explore his limitations, and then break them; to expose his vulnerabilities, and reflect upon their source and meaning. His experimentation is not obvious. It spirals inwards, orbiting the central axis of jazz, while traversing its various trajectories with elegance, depth, and intense regard to produce deeply personal statements that draw in audiences and listeners like moths to flame.

His latest album Americana is no exception. It is to date the furthest Allen has moved along the spectrum toward slower tempos, ballad structures, and thematic unity. Throughout the album Allen returns to the blend of emotive intensity balanced by workman-like diligence that grounded his breakthrough release I Am-I Am. However, he now explores the terrain with a steadier, more contemplative hand, as if recasting personal turmoil, ecstasies, and triumphs in more global terms to explore how they relate to a broader struggle beyond the individual, and how the musical expression of that struggle reflects the evolution of American musical and cultural identity, specifically African-American.

In approaching the blues in this way, Allen described his goal as " To become a better musician. Learning how to compose and convincingly play a blues feel is learning how to humanize an inanimate object or a stream of notes."

With the support of his erstwhile trio-mates, Allen certainly accomplished this aim and simultaneously set a new personal high water mark.

The opening "Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil" penetrates the depths of jazz's foundational blues forms, sliding deftly over a razor sharp bass line as Allen carves a sequence of tension filled figures that combine into an elongated lament. Allen travels even deeper into the relationship between American folk music and African American forms with the spiritually potent "Another Man Done Gone," which emphasizes the formative musical connection between Allen and Coltrane, whose lasting impact is never far from Allen's sound, though integrated in a distinct and organic way.

Acting as a central pivot, "Cotton" features Allen's ability to craft melodic phrases that seep into the mind, and are used here to render a hauntingly complex meditation on the many repercussions of the crop of oppression.

"Cotton plays a major role in our daily life. Cotton was there when the first blues was sung," explains Allen. "It's responsible for contemporary American music. I figured people would know exactly what I was playing about."

Americanaalso showcases Allen's hard swinging side and muscular improvisatory capacities on the more up tempo tunes "Sugar Free," "Lightin,'" "Bigger Thomas," and the homage to Betty Carter "Lillie Mae Jones," which bristle with energy while maintaining thematically consistent motifs that help build the albums feeling of a cohesive, comprehensive exploration.

Lastly, the darkly atmospheric "Americana" stands as the album's somber centerpiece. A living base line with no melody or set pulse, the piece combines abstract drums and stripped-down, skeletal saxophone to lay bare the album's interweaving of lament, spiritual evocation, and sober reflection to render a provocative, layered portrait of America.

A major achievement, Americana is a profound examination of the cross-roads that define American musical tradition, delivered with force by one of jazz's most creative set of musicians.

Track Listing: 1. Tell the Truth, Shame the devil; 2. Another Man Done Gone; 3. Cotton; 4. Sugar Free; 5. Bigger Thomas; 6. American 7. Lightin’ 8. If You’re Lonesome, Then You are Not Alone; 9. Lille Mae Jones

Personnel: JD Allen: Tenor Saxophone; Gregg August: Bass; Rudy Royston: Drums

Title: Americana | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Savant Records

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