JD Allen Trio - "The Matador and the Bull" (The Matador and the Bull)
Sunnyside may be out and Savant in, but saxophonist JD Allen’s switch in recording labels isn’t the fresh start it might suggest. His working trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston is still the focus, as is the tight, driving tune-smithing that held the ensemble in good stead since its debut. The Matador and the Bull does employ greater thematic congruity with the album’s 12 tracks collectively reflecting the colorful pageantry and drama of a lone toreador in a sun-parched ring. It also loosely recalls the work of erstwhile saxophonist James Finn, a fiery player who fell off the jazz grid a half decade ago and has largely not been heard from since. Where Finn’s sound tapped the abstract explosiveness of late-period Coltrane, Allen is more reflective of the Heavyweight Champion’s middle period, where vibrant melodies and agile harmonies were primary components.
Allen’s name holds the pole position here, but as with past efforts by the trio, August and Royston are equal partners in the playbook. The pieces flow in medley-like succession, working both as discrete, fully functional entities and as parts in a fine-tuned, enveloping whole. All three are experts in improvisational precision and brevity. Wasting breath or motion just isn’t in their vocabulary. Variations on the title piece bookend the program, both opening with the corpulent loping thrum of August’s strings and a bustling cymbal patter by Royston as Allen intones a melancholic theme. The coda track carries a heightened tension, as if all that’s transpired in the interim has set the players on a contemplative edge. The earlier piece folds seamlessly into the aggressive march cadence of “A Suit of Lights” with Royston working his snare vigorously via staccato press rolls.
Selecting specific tracks to sift isn’t easy when they’re as uniformly solid as these. “Ring Shout!” works off a tight rondo pattern, with all three players digging in and generating a centripetal momentum with palpable gravitational pull. “Santa Maria (Mother)” is a near-opposite in its gradualness and looseness, Royston initially turning to brushes and August sounding spare, corpulent punctuations as Allen blows a soothing statement on top that recalls Ornette Coleman’s “Morning Song” in its delicate, telescoping beauty. Darkly buzzing arco drones dominate “Cathedral,” while “Paseillo” and “Pinyin” are all jaunty repartee and tumbling jocularity. “Vuela (The Whisperer)” splits the difference between brooding rumination and bright amicability on the space-filling girth of August’s stout walking line. Royston functions in comparable capacity on “The Lyrics of Summer and Shadow,” a piece that brings to mind another tenor titan of times past, Gato Barbieri, in its assertive Latin accents.
Working bands in jazz seem to be an ever-dwindling resource, and while Allen and his colleagues aren’t exactly tilling fresh soil here, there’s a strong amount of pleasure centered in simply hearing them do what they do so well. To put it another way, the “if it ain’t broke” aphorism certainly applies.