"We baked all our own bread."
Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
The COVID pandemic has changed many things about daily life, creating something of a new, mutated "normal." This is no more apparent than in many of the "outside-the-box" methods that performance artists have used to subsist and ply their trade during a virtual lockdown. In particular, tenor saxophonist Harry Allen
took the pandemic head on by cutting a European tour short in March 2020, returning to New York City. But rather than simply wait to see what happened, Allen jumped headlong into two ambitious projects. Taking advantage of some newly acquired recording equipment and computer software, the saxophonist recorded a "solo" recording, The Bloody Happy song
(GAC Records, 2020). This recording featured Allen alone, appearing in a variety of computer-generated virtual formats, from solo horn to little-big band. The results were swinging and impressive.
Extrapolating this method, Allen enlisted the guitarist Dave Blenkhorn , with whom he had been touring in Europe on the eve of the pandemic, to make a trans-Atlantic recording: Allen in New York City and Blenkhorn in Bordeaux, France (consider the romance of those locales!). This resulted in Under A Blanket Of Blue
(GAC Records, 2020). Both projects successfully showed that creativity is adaptable as necessary, and , at its best, brings everything closer together, in spite of temporal circumstances. Allen's most recent projects highlight the good. They also restore that bit of mystery that is still able to make even the most jaded and cynical among listeners.
Take, for instance, Allen's third pandemic project, Milo's Illinois
, recorded in Allen's home with double bassist Mike Karn. The title itself is filled with questions. Who is Milo and why in Illinois? Only part of this is revealed but that part is worth it. In numbers, Milo's Illinois
is made up of nine standards and two originals. The subject matter is from across the map, from the hopeful "Love Is Just Around The Corner" to the resigned "Just One of Those Things," to the sepia-toned "Tea For Two." The songs are captured with an intensely relaxed spirit, one of making the best of a marginal situation with intimacy and empathy.
Allen's tone remains as sweet and confident as ever, adopting a piquant character when applied to Antonio Carlos Jobim
("O Grande Amor," "How Insensitive"). Karn meets Allen head on, anticipating the saxophonist and guiding him. Karn provides the introduction to several pieces, giving "Tea For Two" his most thoughtful consideration before kicking things off in a swinging fashion with Allen's entry. Mitchell Parish's rarely recorded "Gypsy Sweetheart" is provided a rounded treatment with saxophonist and bassist clicking along effortlessly. Irving Berlin
's "The Song Is Ended" is submitted, upbeat and strolling in a steadfast 4/4, rolling into "How Insensitive," providing Karn is greatest, and most inventive, solo space.
"Milo's Illinois" is the Karn contribution to the recording, a circuitous bebop piece with an impressive head and compelling interior. Milo turns out to be a dog, a small one. And, "'Milo's Illinois" is a song about keeping a small dog warm, bringing this project to its peaceful and positive close with questions still unanswered. Praise the small and simple. They will never disappoint and it's been a long winter.
Love Is Just Around The Corner; Just One Of Those Things; A Time For Love; O Grand Amor; Tea For Two; Gypsy Sweetheart;
Tenderly; Milo's Illinois; Just Pickin' Out Ditties; The Song Is Over; How Insensitive.