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For Your Consideration: J.D. Allen's 'The Matador and The Bull'

The Feeling Of Elation That Comes After A Good Bull-Fight
Jonathan Wertheim
Staff Writer
jon.wertheim@gmail.com / @disgruntledjazz

If I had to choose only one word to describe tenor saxophonist, bandleader and composer J.D. Allen, that word would be focused. There is an intense focus to Allen’s four most recent recordings, recordings that – taken together – paint a wonderfully rounded portrait of one of the most inventive and interesting musicians on the scene today.

First of all, Allen has done what few on the scene today seem to want to do -- he has established his musical setting of choice, and he has stuck with it. Like Jason Moran’s Bandwagon, Allen’s trio with Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums – which debuted with the immense and multi-dimensional I Am, I Am in 2008 – has allowed Allen’s talents as a soloist, composer and band member to flourish.

It has also, at times, been a distraction. The pianoless trio invites comparison to Sonny Rollins, but aside from a strident, forward-leaning, clean-hewn playing style Allen bears little resemblance to Rollins. He rather embodies Coltrane at his most lyrical classic quartet moments, or Ornette Coleman in his hard-driving New York Is Now! mode. And, of course, when he really hits his stride, as he consistently does on every track of his albums, J.D. Allen sounds like no one as much as J.D. Allen.

The longest Allen track I have in my library is from that first album, but most of Allen’s tunes – almost solely originals – clock in at under six minutes, and I am glad to see that the new disc, The Matador and The Bull, continues the trend. Despite, or perhaps because of, their short running times, Allen’s tunes are akin to mini-suites, with themes coming and going, written lines blending seamlessly with solos, each member of the trio subtly shifting tempos and emphases to create a fully rounded, living sound. It’s a modern take on Lester Young’s solos from the 1930s - improvisations whose high level depth and emotion was necessitated by their fleeting nature.

The record gets off to an introspective start with its title track, “The Matador and The Bull (Torero)” (the tune is reprised, after a fashion’s, at the album’s end). Royston provides a loose, meterless swing while August plays a counterpoint in a ringing, woody bass tone. The subsequent tracks (highlights are the energetic “Ring Shout,” the loose swing of “Vuela (The Whisperer)” and the ringing lines of “The Lyrics Of Summer And Shadow”) seem to begin where the previous ones left off; the whole album is an artistic statement totally focused on its message.

Allen’s records – Matador included – aren’t the discs that make me “pop my fingers and pat my feet,” as Horace Silver would say, but I smiled all the way through this record, and I bet you will too. It’s that rare instance of a musician with unique ideas, someone who actually wants to stand out from the crowd. This makes the fact that Allen is such a quiet presence on the jazz scene – unlike the much-publicized and lauded Moran or the crossovers Glasper and Spalding – all the more remarkable.

And, rising above all the critic-speak, there’s just, simply, the music.

Missing out on this record means missing out on one of the most important contemporary jazz voices at his very best. There’s no hype here. Only music. And this music holds the vibrancy of the red flag, the thunder of a bull’s hooves across the stadium, and the beauty that comes from facing life’s deepest emotions.

Jon Wertheim, a jazz writer and reviewer, writes at his jazz blog, The Disgruntled Jazz Critic, here at Nextbop, and on Twitter.