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J.D. Allen: Victory!

Dan Bilawsky By

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Many artists seem to move rapidly through different ensemble configurations, as if they're trying to finish off a career to-do list. While it's true that artistic reinvention using various instrumental formats—whether it be an organ group, big band project or The Jazz Messengers-style outing—can help an artist gain notice in the trade magazines, using these formats as quick pit stops along the press trail can make for a shallow career that lacks in artistic depth. When an exceptional artist is willing to take the time to fully explore a specific format, like the saxophone-bass-drums trio, and develop an ensemble identity, it's a true Victory! and cause for celebration.

Tenor saxophonist JD Allen launched his piano-less trio a full fifty years after Sonny Rollins took this format to task on A Night At The Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1957), and Victory!—his third trio outing for the Sunnyside label—is indicative of the fact that Allen keeps getting better with age. While Rollins' legendary live album is usually used as a measuring tool when discussing this format, Allen's music stands apart from Rollins'—and above many of today's talents—in several important ways. First, and foremost, is Allen's belief in brevity. Nine of the twelve tracks clock in under three-and-a-half minutes and his straight-to-the-point delivery is a breath of fresh air. The saxophonist's fascination with sonata form, which deals with a theme, development and recapitulation, plays a big part in his compositional approach and the overall structural arc of the album, but the brief duration and architectural integrity of the music aren't the only notable aspects.

While Allen's trio is a cohesive unit that knows how to swing and move as one ("Mr. Steepy"), they rarely play it safe. Rudy Royston's drumming is built on a loose-tight duality that stretches the very rhythmic fabric of these miniatures and Allen spins many a melodic fragment over Royston's rumbling foundation. The drummer brilliantly underscores cool slices of saxophone melody with jittery cymbals ("Philippe Petit") and plays cat-and-mouse with bassist Gregg August as the trio leans toward sounds of the East ("Sura Hinda"), but he can also accentuate a somber spiritual with nothing more than a press roll and a simple groove ("Victory!"). August is every bit his match in the rhythmic flexibility department, whether playing it loose and free, providing some arco accompaniment ("Philippe Petit"), or bouncing his buoyant bass on the bottom of the ensemble ("Fatima").

Allen's statement that "wasting notes is a waste of time," isn't mere lip service. The saxophonist self-edits like few others and what's left is the cream on the top. He delivers inspired, church-derived fare ("Victory!") and relaxed, smoky mood music ("Stairway To The Stars") with equal passion and his music never discriminates, as it demonstrates a fondness for both freedom and fully structured entities.

General Patton once addressed the need to "accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory," and this Victory! is, indeed, exhilarating.

Track Listing: Victory!; The Pilot's Compass; The Thirsty Ear; Sura Hinda; The Learned Tongue; Philippe Petit; Motif; Fatima; Mr. Steepy; Stairway To The Stars; The Hungry Eye; Recapitulation (The Pilot's Compass); Victory! (Short Film).

Personnel: JD Allen: tenor saxophone; Gregg August: bass; Rudy Royston: drums.

Title: Victory! | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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