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JD Allen Trio: Victory!

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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Every new musical expedition undertaken by tenor saxophonist JD Allen serves to solidify his reputation as one of the finest, most adventurous young musicians playing today. Victory!—a superb collection of short works—is no exception. With a gently swinging, ponderous vibrato he weaves his way into territory that he has charted for himself. The rebellious yell of his voice finds fortuitous echo in the elemental sadness of the blues, the solemnity of gospel and ultimately in the joyful recapitulation of life itself. Allen plays in phrases and musical sentences that are moist and somewhat short, but always interconnected in a Hemingway-like manner. His playing is characterized with raw muscularity; a kind of brawny wildness that unfolds in leaps and bounds that is also at once charming and sophisticated.

Sticking with his trusted trio of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, Allen tells his story in exquisite vignettes as he dives through troughs and surmounts peaks that disappear into the stratosphere. Here he also leads his loyal outfit through the agitating waters of conflict, through resolution with mythic heroism. But unlike the telling of epic stories, his narratives are short and suave. In this regard he is almost like Charlie Parker, who almost never wasted a note—although he played a lot more than Allen does—in his songs. But the manner in which both saxophonists overturn melodic sequences, chorus after chorus, unveil harmony and attack rhythm—albeit on differently pitched instruments—is similar. Allen is also ingenious in his unique ability to play slanted, across the tonal palettes painted by August's bass as he strolls or gallops wildly in and out of the rhythmic storm created by Royston.

As Charles Mingus also said of one of his bands, Allen can play beautifully and ugly, but always relevant and always honest. He also has a fine sense of history and although he may traverse the continent, in time and space, he is keenly aware of his Afro-American heritage. The stately march of "the title track is a fine musical statement, full of bold and heraldic proclamations that serve to remind where the music comes from: the light and shadow of "blues alley." "The Pilot's Compass" is another short movement that only serves to show that Allen's way is inhabited with a life of freedom-loving polyrhythm. "Sura Hinda" is unveiled with a deep sense of the complex mystery of character as well as in the glorious shades and colors of a life well-lived. The playfulness and dynamic, high-wire tension of "Philippe Petit" is almost palpable.

Allen uses short, sharp narratives, built on the wondrous harmonies and staccato and rubato passages of rhythm, uncoiling from the stings and skins of August's bass and Royston's drums to create the story of another memorable journey through song. All of this is also captured in a fine short monochromatic film by Mario Lathan that is sinewy and elegant in form and content.

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