In the mid eighties, the mighty Joe Henderson released two live albums entitled The State of the Tenor (Vols. 1 and 2) . Two decades later, the profound and powerful Detroit-born, New York-based tenor saxophonist/bandleader JD Allen, undoubtedly the most accomplished and ubiquitous saxophonist on the scene--as evidenced by his own projects and his work with everyone from Betty Carter and Meshell Ndegeocello, to classical violinist Nigel Kennedy--has released his outstanding Sunnyside debut, I Am I Am; a pianoless trio date that picks up where Henderson left off, and further establishes Allen as the Tenor of our Time.
With his engaging and inventive bandmates bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, Allen has delivered a masterpiece, consisting of ten selections that are not merely tunes, tracks or songs; they are concise and compellingly crafted vehicles constructed by the leader to go where few trios have gone before. I've been playing with Gregg and Rudy for a year and a half now, Allen says, from day one, I feel that the common ground between us has always been SOUND, MELODY and FEELING. With or without a piano, the melody, form and chord structure still exist. The challenge is to play honest and to really say who I AM.
It is evident on this CD that Allen has met and exceeded that challenge. The aural evidence of his gifts are crystal clear: A huge, broad tone, expressed in an uncommon lyrical logic, with an unstoppable sense of swing. The title track leads off the disc with a reverent overture-like tone parallel to John Coltrane's Alabama." On The North Star" Allen's light-speed solo points the way to up, while Royston does his own drum thing, shifting tempos with ease. Hajile" is a three-way, syncopated seance, contrasted by the three-meter feel of Titus" and Pagan." Louisada" and Ezekiel" are Latin-tinged, freedom-jazzed dances. Allen's Maghreb-moded tenor cries on Id" and The Cross + the Crescent Sickle" take the listener on an adventurous, improvisational carpet ride, steered by Augusts bowed basslines and Royston's hip-notic drumming. Othello" is a twilight-toned piece, where Allen's mournful sound rings with the Moors regret.
I think the one thing that all of the compositions have in common is the fact that all of the melodies are singable, says Allen, and that each point is made up front and center, meaning that the purpose for having short melodies was to get to the arc of each of these pieces right away; in other words hit and run.
This CD is the culmination of a musical journey that began in Detroit, Michigan, where JD Allen III was born on December 11, 1972. There are three live performances that I saw when I was just starting out that made me realize the power of music, Allen told Jazz Improv magazine. I saw John Gilmore, the tenor saxophonist with the Sun Ra Arkestra, play Body & Soul," first in a Coleman Hawkins vein: harmonically open and then he played pure sound with respect to the form of the song. I heard the entire history of the tenor saxophone. He sounded like a time traveler. Sonny Rollins magnetized me with his sound and the fluidity of his ideas. It was pure language. Seeing Branford Marsalis live for the first time showed me that you could embrace the cry or the energy, and make it your own.
A 1991 graduate of Detroit's Northwestern High School, Allen studied at Hampton University, and the University of Michigan, and eventually made the move to New York. His energetic tenor cries lit up the Big Apple, and he was a mainstay at many of that citys best-known clubs including Smalls, The Village Gate, and Visione's. He worked and recorded with Lester Bowie, George Cables, Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, The Frank Foster Big Band, Winard Harper, Butch Morris, David Murray, Wallace Roney, Cindy Blackman, Orrin Evans, Gerald Cleaver, Jeremy Pelt, Eric Revis,, Russell Gunn, Meshell Ndegeocello, Dave Douglas, and Nigel Kennedy.
Though each leader has impressed upon me different aspects of leadership, many times the magic happened before a note was ever played." Allen tells Jazz Improv. For instance, you knew that Frank Foster meant business just by the way he counted off the band. It was very regal and filled with confidence... Being with Betty Carter taught me the importance of team work, and not being afraid to tell someone what you needed from them to sound your best. Cindy Blackman taught me how to find the best way to interpret a song: do whatever you've got to do--cut here, paste there--but before you play it, mold it into your own likeness. Lester Bowie impressed upon me and my peers, the idea of ownership; taking control of not only your music but also the things that have nothing to do with your music. I've had many experiences with great leaders; some short, some long--but each and every one proved to be very informative."
The benefits of Allens impressive apprenticeships can be heard on his marvelous recordings as a leader. His first CD, In Search Of (Red Records, 1996) won him the Best New Artist in Italy that year. His follow-up release, Pharaohs Children (Criss Cross, 2001) was one of Jazziz magazines Critics Picks Top 10 Albums of the Year. He has also appeared on NPR's Jazz Perspectives, WNYC's Soundcheck and WKCR's Musicians Show.
All of those experiences, spaces and places make JD Allen the stellar artist that he is. And, as I Am I Am so thoroughly reveals, he is not only master of the tenor saxophone; he is a master of himself. I think the minute you decide that you're an artist, the word challenge comes into play very quickly, he says. Learning your instrument is a challenge; playing live is a challenge; writing music is a challenge; being heard is a challenge. When I decided to become a musician that was my first step towards being an independent artist because that idea was totally independent of the environment that I grew up in; which was join the military or work for Chrysler or find some other god-forsaken means of getting by. The minute I said, 'Yes' to my gift, art has worked for me."