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JD Allen Trio - Victory!

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Artist: JD Allen Trio

Album: Victory!

Label: Sunnyside

Review date: Jun. 9, 2011

Explicitly triumphant in title, tenorist JD Allen’s latest disc trades on the same road-tested template of his past two Sunnyside releases. Not that the chosen tack of tried-and-true is a moribund one. Allen’s working trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston continues to prove that the piano-less format pioneered by Sonny Rollins and others over half a century ago is as viable to today’s jazz-based improvisers as it was in its auspicious initial offing. Rollins’ punchy and pithy way with parceling melody informs Allen’s own agile approach with a line. Coltrane comes through as an even greater influence, audible in a stout tone, harmonic acuity and dusky, cerulean phrasing. Even so, the indelible influence of these two tenor icons does little to obfuscate the genuine personality suffusing Allen’s horn.

Victory! doesn’t advance any sea changes in terms of concepts or playing, but Allen’s never seemed all that enamored of (what are ultimately almost always empty) stabs at innovation to begin with. He’s no alchemist, and instead it’s his aptitude for incisiveness and brevity that acts as chief asset in getting his various points across. The phrase “jukebox jazz” came into critical parlance in describing his trio’s particularly efficient approach to composition and execution. As with earlier works, the 12 tunes all register within the temporal parameters of pop songs. “Stairway to the Stars” stands out as the sole standard, but tailored tightly to the trio’s vernacular, it fits in smoothly with the 11 originals.

In Allen’s own shorthand estimation, “wasting notes is a waste of time.” He and his partners certainly put that diet-minded mantra into practice through their precise and passionate explorations. Sharply drawn as they are and threaded through with connective variations, none of the pieces outlasts its welcome. The opening title track runs contrary to its exclamation point, favoring a methodically slow lope on the back of August’s robust strings and a keenly-wound Royston press roll in advance of Allen’s late entry.

August exercises his arco chops on “Philippe Petit,” bowing thick cut swathes, and dominates the fleeting “The Hungry Eye” with a cascading barrage of strums and thrums. Allen’s Coltrane roots peek through the rich loam of “Fatima” (spiritual cousin of “Naima”?) and the cycle of thinly-veiled interpolations that clothe the kinetic “Mr. Steepy.” Absent August for most of its duration, “Motif” allows Allen and Royston to run each other down via a titular rhythmic figure — another standout among the dozen.

A 10-minute documentary film by Mario Lathan serves as an audio-visual postscript to the album, interspersing illuminating interview snippets with footage of the trio in the studio and their natural club habitats. It also spells out in vivid terms the significance of the album title. As with the band’s earlier efforts, the sounds and visuals once again suggest the enduring worth in Allen’s at once lucid and laconic relationship with jazz tradition.

By Derek Taylor

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