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Ugly Beauty: Jazz in The 21st Century


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The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1, "JD Allen: Just Keep Going" from Philip Freeman's Ugly Beauty: Jazz in The 21st Century (ZerO Books, 2022).

Queens, New York seems purposely designed to confuse travelers. It's January 2, 2020, a brisk but sunny day, and I'm to meet saxophonist JD Allen at Samurai Hotel Recording Studio. To get there, I ride the N train from Manhattan, then walk up Broadway (a different Broadway) to 21st Street, where I make a right and pass, in order, 31st Road, 31st Drive and 31st Avenue. The building that houses the studio bears no sign and could easily be a residence. I press the buzzer beside the door, and am admitted.

Allen makes an album a year, and he likes to get an early start so the music will reach the public in late spring or early summer. (This album will be delayed until the end of August.) I arrive before he does, and watch the engineers set up microphones around bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo. The studio owner and lead engineer shows me a beautiful vintage RCA microphone that Allen will be using. It belonged to John Coltrane, whose son Ravi donated it to the studio.

There's some brief confusion, because when Allen and company recorded last year, Cacioppo had three toms on his kit, and this year he has only two. Soon enough, though, the levels have all been tested, the sound dialed in, and when Allen arrives at 12:30 and begins passing out sheet music, everyone's ready to get to work.

A typical jazz recording session takes a day, or two at most, and it goes like this: if they're a working band, the musicians have probably been playing the tunes for a while on gigs, and if they've been called together specifically for the session, they've spent the previous day rehearsing, enough to get a general idea and lock in a collective approach. They'll do a take or two, maybe three, of a tune, and when they're satisfied with it, they'll move on to the next one. That's not how JD Allen works. He prefers to record in what he calls "sets," giving the band all the tunes at once and playing them one after another in sequence, as though they were onstage in a club. They record all day and sometimes into the night, tracking between two and five complete "sets" of music, and then he takes it all home and digs in, picking out the best performances of individual pieces.

"I tell the guys, 'If you make a mistake, don't stop, just keep going.' And usually the mistakes are pretty hip," he told me in 2019. "By the time the day's over, we're crawling out of the studio, but then there's no need to go in the next two days, or the next week, because we've done it all in one day."

This working method gives his albums immediacy and cohesiveness. The music is all of a piece, even when it's not. This is, in turn, a mirror of his live performances, during which he blends tunes together into nearly seamless suites, one hooky, bluesy melody feeding into the next. As he told me the first time we ever spoke, in 2011:

We average about 15 to 20 tunes a set. We stretch it out—if it feels like we can go farther, we take it farther, but on average I have 15 tunes per set. If we can go longer, like if we have to play for 75 minutes, then I'll throw in a couple of standard ballads. I like ballads. But for our usual 45-minute set, 15 tunes.

Allen's voice on the horn is huge; he's part of a long tradition of big-toned tenor saxophonists that includes Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, David Murray, David S. Ware and others. His lines are steeped in the blues, and he has a deep sense of swing nurtured during an early apprenticeship with singer Betty Carter.

I was a fan of his for years before seeing him live, because his shows were always inconvenient in one way or another: location, date, time of night...somehow, I didn't get to a gig until early 2019, by which time he'd dissolved his longtime trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. The eight albums they made together, beginning in 2008 —I Am I Am, Shine!, Victory!, The Matador and the Bull, Graffiti, Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues, Radio Flyer and LoveStone, the last two with guitarist Liberty Ellman added to the lineup—were as strong a body of work as any twenty-first century jazz group produced, and some of my favorite albums of the era. Live performances on YouTube proved that they were locked-in tight onstage, too, keeping the tunes concise for maximum impact and never slowing down or giving the audience time to breathe.

The first time I saw Allen perform, at The Jazz Gallery in Manhattan, he had Kenselaar—a tall, skinny blond kid of 25—on bass, and an equally young man named Malick Koly on drums. Both were significantly younger and less experienced than Allen, who's in his mid-forties and had been on the scene since the late 1990s, and there was an element of coaching as he guided them through the set, pointing to one or the other when he wanted them to solo and making sure they listened closely to each other.

A few months later, on a Wednesday night in June 2019, I trekked out to Bar Bayeux, a narrow venue tucked between a hair salon and a deli on Brooklyn's Nostrand Avenue. Another saxophonist of my acquaintance, Jerome Sabbagh, was booking a weekly series of performances, one of which was to feature Allen and his new trio (now with Cacioppo behind the kit), to celebrate the release of their first album together, Barracoon.

The bar provided just enough room for a few people to congregate in the front, by a big window, and another small area of open floor in the back. Cacioppo was setting up in the corner as Allen made the rounds, shaking hands with the small group of friendly faces who'd made the gig. When Kenselaar turned up, wheeling an upright and lugging a bass guitar and a small amp, the three leapt into action.

The set was slightly more structured than the onstage practice session I'd witnessed at the Jazz Gallery, but there were similarities. The pieces flowed together with few pauses, forcing Kenselaar and Cacioppo to watch carefully and listen closely. Allen started each tune from the embers of the one before, like a chain-smoker. His melodies were short and mantra-like, drawn from the blues and burnished by his tone, which combines elements from the John Coltrane of Crescent and the Sonny Rollins of East Broadway Run Down, but peppered with a sly phrasal invention all his own.

Midway through the second or third tune, Cacioppo took a solo that exploded with a furious energy, but was nevertheless deployed with precision. His sticks danced across the snare and tom, leaving sonic craters in their wake, as he stared ahead with the impassivity of an assembly-line worker snapping parts together. Later, when he suddenly let his mouth fall open and his tongue loll nearly to his collar in mid-tune, it was so startling it was almost hilarious.

At Samurai Hotel, Cacioppo's drums sound massive; his toms boom like Elvin Jones's on Coltrane albums from the 1960s. Kenselaar's bass is huge, too, a thick strumming sound. Allen stands in the big central room, turned sideways so he can see each of them in their small isolated chambers, and he gives them room to run. One track, "Die Dreaming," includes a bass solo, and another, "Elegua (The Trickster)," is kicked off by a drum solo. (In 2011, Allen had told me he often leaves room for drum solos when composing his tunes.)

This group is looser than the previous trio with August and Royston had been. Those two always had a coiled tension to their interactions; the drummer's snare snapped and rang sharply. Cacioppo, on the other hand, is as interested in creating effects as in keeping time or driving the trio. He has a fascination with pitch bending, a technique that gives a drum more of a bowed sound than the traditional percussive strike. It's a subtle thing, but when combined with his busy approach to the kit—he's as big a fan of the holistic free playing of Milford Graves as of the fierce swing of longtime Count Basie drummer Jo Jones—it makes the trio's taut, bluesy workouts endlessly compelling.

When the first set of tunes has been tracked, Allen heads outside for a smoke. I follow him, and we hang out and talk, swapping stories of encounters with Cecil Taylor while he smokes and a photographer takes pictures of him, potentially for the CD booklet. I duck out before the trio returns to work, listening to a previous Allen album—2015's Graffiti—on my way back to the subway.

The next time I see Allen is at the Jazz Gallery again, on February 1, 2020. He's joined a band led by fellow saxophonist Marcus Strickland called Ghidorah, named for the three-headed dragon from the Godzilla movies; the third head is Stacy Dillard. Onstage, Strickland is in the center, and Allen and Dillard are at stage right and left, respectively, with Eric Wheeler on bass and Rodney Green on drums. A video screen behind them shows clips of their namesake monster, as well as dance performances by the Nicholas Brothers and tribute footage of Kobe Bryant, who had died 5 days earlier.

The band plays four sets over the course of two nights, with each saxophonist bringing in original music; this is not a "let's stretch out on some standards" gig. Nevertheless, they are explicitly grappling with the legacy and lineage of the jazz tenor saxophone, and particularly the Black male voice on that horn. Before the first set on the second night, Strickland discusses the history of the tenor and shouts out a litany of legends, including Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and paying special tribute to Jimmy Heath, who had died on January 19.

The first piece the group performs is by Allen, and his compositional voice—those hooky melodies, steeped in the blues, but with a steely core—is instantly recognizable, and an ideal way to start the night. The sound of three tenor saxophones biting into a powerful melody is spine-tingling, and Wheeler and Green launch into a loose but hard-swinging rhythm. A self-effacing player, Allen lets both Dillard and Strickland solo before him, each man establishing his lane in the process. Dillard is the fiercest, as he'll remain throughout the night.

His solo is raucous and even shrill at times, recalling David Murray's punishing squalls of sound. Strickland, by contrast, burrows into the lower end of the tenor's range, with a thick tone like a bubbling cauldron. When Allen takes his turn in the spotlight, he too uses his first solo to make a statement of identity, defining himself for anyone present who doesn't know his name or his work. The oldest of the three co-leaders at 47 (Dillard is 45, Strickland 40), his playing is just slightly more restrained than the other two men's, hewing closer to the melody—he wrote it, after all—but deploying a few fleet-fingered phrases, almost as a form of humblebragging. The second piece comes from Dillard's pen, and keeps the excitement level high. It almost has an old school R&B feel, with a jumpy, vibrant energy befitting its origins in a trip he'd taken to South Africa. Strickland gets the first solo this time, followed by Allen, with Dillard batting cleanup. Wheeler takes an extended bass solo, as he'd done on the first piece.

The quintet could easily opt for an hour of these bluesy rave-ups; that strategy had worked for Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, after all. But on the third number, Allen's "G Thing" (which appears on Toys/Die Dreaming, the album I'd watched them record at Sorcerer Sound), they shift gears, offering a simmering, mournful ballad in the mode of John Coltrane's "Alabama." Strickland is up first, and switches to bass clarinet, playing an Eric Dolphy-esque solo with a questing feel. Allen is next, followed by Dillard, who opts for soprano, continuing the Coltrane-ish mood but playing in a more abstract manner. At one point, he takes a wrong turn that requires a second of silence to recover from, but the vocal and enthusiastic crowd is with him—and everyone else—all the way.

The last piece of the night is a Strickland composition, "Pivotal Decision." It's a fast bebop burner, and a perfect closer, with all three men back on tenor and tossing the tune back and forth like NBA all-stars. The leader is up first, followed by Allen, then Dillard, and to cap things off, Green takes his only drum solo of the night, a too-brief, kit-rattling eruption that has as much in common with hard rock as jazz. The three heads of the dragon wind things down in thrilling, high-speed harmony, each man's unique voice making up one-third of a powerful chorus. As the show progresses, more names than those Strickland listed pop into my head: Charlie Rouse, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Dewey Redman, David S. Ware... not because what the members of Ghidorah are doing is in any way derivative of their forebears, but because the tenor saxophone is the beating heart of jazz, and these men are keeping the blood pumping and then some.



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