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J.D. Allen

Tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen envies the touch of the poet. “Not to sound corny, and maybe it’s because I’m on the cusp of turning 40, but I’d like to write poetry,” says Allen, who performs with his J.D. Allen Trio at Cornish College of the Arts on October 26 as the culmination of a weeklong residency. “I think that would help develop my playing, my soloing, and is another outlet I think I could really get into.”

It’s unlikely that Allen will anytime soon abandon his horn, which he picked up at age 14, in favor of a literary career. But the Detroit-born 39-year-old, who in the course of some 15 years has established himself as a musicians’ musician and a bit of a critics’ darling, is determined to pursue whatever avenues seem best suited to advance his personal expression, reach listeners, engage students and “make history,” as he elaborated in a recent phone interview from his home in New York City. “Shoot for being great,” he mentioned as his motto. “That’s the goal.

To date, Allen has chased that goal in seven records as a leader, four of them with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, the colleagues with whom he’ll be appearing at Cornish. Their cohesion is evident in several video clips on YouTube, including one produced at WNYC-FM in 2009, when Allen and company were interviewed by program host Leonard Lopate, shortly after the release of the Trio’s debut album I Am – I Am.

In it, the three musicians unveiled a substantial, serious and sincere style, which they’ve advanced through the subsequent recordings Shine! (2009), Victory! (2011) and The Matador and the Bull (2012). They’ll draw repertoire for their Cornish performance from all these CDs. Allen has won high praise internationally for jazz that’s powerful yet tuneful, and improvised yet structured in the tradition laid down by such tenor sax masters as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins.

Like these revered predecessors, Allen projects his music from the base of a personal sound. “Tone is first and foremost,” he asserted. “The next big part of my playing is sound and melody. I try to be as melodic as possible, which is definitely an extension of my singing.”

As a child Allen sang in a family troupe with his sisters. He was already into music at that time, having begun study on the clarinet at age nine. Currently he sings only in the shower, “when nobody else is around.” Since he believes that using words could make the impact of his music “more direct,” is he tempted to try it again, onstage?

“I have thought about trying to practice singing, like when I’m walking down the street,” Allen mused. “The great thing about singing is you have your instrument with you all the time.”

Short of that, though, the saxophonist knows there are other ways to incorporate the power of words into performance. “Learn the lyrics of a tune, for example, then you can really play it,” he said. “I got this idea from Lester Young,” noting that Dexter Gordon employed the same technique, speaking a song’s lyric before ever raising a tenor to his lips.

Knowing the lyrics as Young suggested, or perhaps reciting some lines as Gordon did, might become Allen’s practice, rather than starting to croon, since he appears to be a man who hears sax lines in his head, day in and day out. “I am most interested in making a statement through my horn,” he asserts. “My favorite songs are the most lyrical ones. I’m not much interested in running eighth notes.” He can and will do so when it’s part of the gig, as in stints as a sideman with Ron Carter, the Frank Foster Big Band and M’shell Ndegeocello among others. He simply won’t restrict his options.

“I’m a firm believer in walking the line between playing free and with changes. That’s kind of my philosophy: musicians should be able to do both things. You should be able to play free, or a standard, or a ballad—to be able to work in many different musical worlds and still be who you are.”

“I mean, I’m also a fan of the hook. I guess that term isn’t used much in jazz. You hear people talk about it in mainstream music, like pop stars, have a ‘great hook.’ I try not to write epic pieces. This is an improvisers’ music, so I write short and catchy, in a sense, memorable themes that I can implement with my solo. You know, there are some things about popular music we can use like: have a good melody; don’t go on too long; get to the point.”

Then, too, there’s the prevalence of lyrics in pop music. Is that why he’s drawn to poetry?

After a pause for thought, Allen answers, “We’re in a time now when a lot of people are composing their own material, which is great, but are they composing their own lyrics?” He knows they’re not. “I’d appreciate it if I bought a record and there were lyrics for the songs even if they weren’t being sung. A guy can have a clue to what emotion he means to convey—why not write a poem about it? Then the song would be more than just notes. Maybe on my next record I’ll have a poem for each tune to guide the listener to what I was thinking.”
“Music and poetry have a lot in common,” Allen concludes. “I look at composing just like poetry. I try to write something I believe in. It can be for listening, or for edifying yourself. Music and poetry are both like looking at a painting, when you’re trying to figure out what a person meant. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not. I think it’s hip.”

New York-based writer, journalist, and critic Howard Mandel is a veteran contributor to DownBeat magazine and president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

Hear the J.D. Allen Trio at Cornish on Friday, October 26th at 8:00 pm. Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.


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