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JD Allen - Grace

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Artist: JD Allen

Album: Grace

Label: Savant

Review date: Apr. 24, 2013

Add JD Allen to the short list of saxophonists adept at folding religious faith into improvised music in an ordered origami fashion that doesn’t undermine either one. Grace marks his second session for Savant and a departure from the trio format he’s commonly turned to as a leader. The disc’s also a bit lengthier than past efforts, although each of the 11 tracks still hovers around six minutes at the outside, according enough time for Allen and his band to delve deep into his melodic reservoir, but preserving space enough to keep the pace from ever slipping into stasis.

It’s a fresh crew this time out, too, with pianist Eldar Djangirov joining the standard framework of bass and drums, fielded in this setting by Dezron Douglas and Jonathan Barber. Operating in the absence of a strict chordal instrument is one of Allen’s strong suits, but he adjusts just as easily to Djangirov’s presence. The new pianist is an instant asset from the onset, working out of a nuanced, angular romanticism that recalls Circle-era Chick Corea and classic Paul Bley. Douglas and Barber blend a bit differently from Allen’s regular trio colleagues, with the bassist bringing precision note placement and comparative sparseness to his patterns and the drummer often saving his most creative bursts of expression for the breaks. Allen’s confidence and admiration in his colleagues is evident throughout; during the title track, he sits out the first half and the rhythm section creates such collective alchemy in his absence, he’s hardly missed.

As with past Allen projects, the program works propitiously as an organic whole, the individual pieces interconnected by a strong narrative thread that makes the sum equal to the parts. The titles intimate disparate signposts in Allen’s artistic cosmology, including Star Wars mythology (“Luke Sky Walker”) and the Dalton Trumbo-scripted Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman cinematic vehicle “Papillon.” Melodic material is occasionally recycled (“Load Star” and “Chagall” pivot off similar motifs), but the repetition retains a freshness in terms of impact. Allen’s own blowing is pretty much unassailable, a near perfect tenor alloy of blues directness and tonal range. “Detroit” and the opening of “Cross Damon” are probably the best examples, with lead horn lines that exude a degree of dusky melancholy tinged with fortitude that would do the likes of Coltrane proud.

Gregory Tardy and Charles Gayle are other occupiers of that earlier mentioned cadre of tenorists able to completely integrate creed with creativity. Tardy trades in New Testament optimism and joy. Gayle draws often from abiding Old Testament fervor and piety. What Allen does here is quite different from either, but stands fluently on par in communicating the breadth of his belief. Quartet joins trio as a laudable means toward the fulfillment of his artistic ends.

By Derek Taylor

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