JD Allen: Barracoon

Mackenzie Horne By

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To describe JD Allen's Barracoon as a great record would give a false impression—though it is in fact a fantastic record. It would be demeaning to only refer to the piece as a great exemplar of post-bop production. This record is more important than that; not only is it significant in terms of Allen's artistic development, but the project also contributes to a larger historical framework. Barracoon frames Allen as a leader, a storyteller, and a historian.

Allen treats his content with love and disarming respect. The record is a celebration of Black perseverance, with themes and tracks alluding to Zora Neale Hurston, Cudjo Lewis, Henrietta Lacks, and the great tenor players who preceded Allen. The title of the record is derived from a book by Hurston; written in the late 1920s and published in 2018, the book details Hurston's experiences and interviews with Lewis, who was the last survivor of the Middle Passage which transported African slaves across the Atlantic.

In her introduction to Hurston's book, activist Alice Walker said, "We see... the nobility of a soul that has suffered to the point of almost erasure, and still it struggles to be whole, present, giving." Barracoon is a flashbang voyage through an ignored history. To overlook the political nuances of the record would miss the point almost entirely. Allen unflinchingly delves into themes of exploitation, empowerment, spirituality and hope. The saxophonist has a talent for making a meaningful critique with artistic grace and uncompromising sternness.

The journey begins with the barrage of Nic Cacioppo's drums on the title track. The drummer ushers in "G Sus" with a percussion-heavy intro as Allen bites into the lower register. "The Immortal (H. Lacks)" is a reference to Henrietta Lacks, a young woman whose cancer cells were secretly hoarded in the 1950s for profit. Cacioppo's frantic brushwork provides the backdrop for Ian Kenselaar's somber, destabilizing bass lines.

Hurston said, "Life, inexhaustible, goes on—and we do too... Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas... Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears." Music stands as one of the few remaining universal languages, and Allen delivers his historical narrative with the mastery of a veteran storyteller and the artistry of a poet. By the conclusion of the record, the trio has played beyond arbitrary notions of happiness and anguish, victory and defeat, mourning and celebrating. Acknowledging the past and looking towards the future are the same thing, and the conductor of this musical vehicle which transports listeners in both directions at once is JD Allen.

Track Listing: Barracoon; G Sus; The Goldilocks Zone; The Immortal (H. Lacks); 13; Beyond the Goldilocks Zone; Communion; EYE Scream; Ursa Major; When You Wish Upon a Star

Personnel: JD Allen: tenor saxophone; Nic Cacioppo: drums; Ian Kenselaar: bass

Title: Barracoon | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Savant Records

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