The J. D.
Allen Trio takes a fearless approach to a formidable tradition. It’s a tenor
saxophone trio, with bass and drums but no piano or guitar, which means that
the burden of exposition falls squarely on the shoulders of its namesake
bandleader. That should be challenge enough, but the format also amounts to a
confrontation with history: it has been a test of mettle for tenor saxophonists
since the 1950s, starting with Sonny Rollins and continuing on
through countless inheritors.
G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
J. D. Allen Trio: Mr. Allen’s
tenor sax is the anchor for the group, at the Village Vanguard this week.
week the J. D. Allen Trio is making its inaugural appearance at the Village
Vanguard, which is where Mr. Rollins effectively set the bar. And judging by
Tuesday night’s first set Mr. Allen has found a way to address that legacy in
his own voice, and on his own terms. Together with the bassist Gregg August and
the drummer Rudy Royston he fashioned a performance that was expressive,
dynamic and forceful, marked by intellectual rigor as well as steady composure.
His group has a pair of worthwhile recent releases on
Sunnyside — “I Am I Am” and “Shine!” — that make good use of compact themes and
rough-and-tumble interplay. But this set, drawing from both albums, felt more
immediate than either of them. Opening with an imploring tune called “Id,” the
group cycled through about a dozen others before landing right back where it
started. So there was rough symmetry at work here, and some faint sense of a
Mr. Allen amplified that feeling by tracing an
uninterrupted path through the set, deftly linking one song to the next. He
sometimes worked pre-emptively, moving on before a theme had run its full
course. And the flicker of impatience in that gesture was productive: it
created an irresistible momentum, keeping the room in a state of suspense.
The tunes themselves, however terse, were often just as
incident packed. On “The North Star” Mr. Allen engaged in a seesawing tension
with Mr. Royston, who filled every pocket of space, changing up his patterns
with compulsive intensity. “Titus” was another odyssey, its tempo slackening
and constricting as if in response to hilly terrain. “Shine!” began as a
flowing ballad and gradually succumbed to a polyrhythmic roil.
Mr. Allen held his ground through every shift, playing in
a sinewy tone and with supple but firm control. At times he evoked the heroic
ideal of John Coltrane, whose pianoless
1961 recording of “Chasin’ the Trane,” from another Vanguard engagement, seems
especially meaningful to him. But Mr. Allen also gave in to tender, unadorned
melody on a pair of songbook standards, “The Nearness of You” and “Where Are
You?” Each was a clearing in the woods, restorative and calm, and each lasted
just barely long enough.
The J. D. Allen Trio appears through Sunday at the Village
Vanguard, 178 Seventh Avenue South, at 11th Street, West Village, (212)