Live: JD Allen Builds A Towering Structure At The Village Vanguard

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JD Allen Trio
Village Vanguard
Thursday, August 25

Better than: Fretting about the next big thing... a hurricane, say...

JD Allen likes to tell the story about being shooed away from the Village Vanguard during his first visit there in the early '90s. It's easy to picture it: A rookie saxist in town from Detroit, making his pilgrimage to the jazz shrine without the required number of Alexander Hamiltons to gain entry. The fact that he was among the hand-picked young talents touring with singer Betty Carter's famed Jazz Ahead programs was of little consequence at the time. A decade later, Allen would end up with a stable working trio of his own and in business with his onetime shoo-er, Village Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon. (She was seated in the audience last night sipping a cocktail.)

With much the same auspiciousness, you can count on JD Allen's sets to finish pretty close to where they begin these days. He's obsessive about the structural clarity of his music in ways that by now are probably expected of anyone who works in an obscure, sometimes prickly idiom that is long outside the pop mainstream. What this means in practice is that Allen's albums are filled with fine original compositions that clock in at radio-friendly lengths, and that he's tailored his sound so that even at its woolliest—when he screeches or leans into a dissonant run—it remains engaging to even those listeners who might think that's more than they bargained for. More pointedly, on the bandstand he often structures his sets with bookends, finishing with the same pieces he opens with.

Last night that opening tune was a standard ("If You Could See Me Now"), and in hindsight it presented a conundrum. Its pedigree harked back to the past, but that wasn't the issue. The vintage quality of Allen's tone has always been high among its notable characteristics, and the mere fact of gigging in a trio format places Allen and any other contemporary saxist at the foot of a tradition jump-started when tenor icon Sonny Rollins slimmed his accompaniment down to just bass and drums (sans piano) back in 1957. (That year, incidentally, Rollins recorded A Night At The Village Vanguard that way.) Allen's choice of opener may have been blueblood, but throughout "If You Could See Me Now" and the ballad that followed it ("I Love You"), his tone actually took on a renewed brawn and left-of-center authority. Indeed, the effect was like seeing him now for the first time, out of the shadow of John Coltrane that sometimes lurks over his work.

More and more of his Coltrane side crept in as the set progressed, but Allen is so skilled at pacing that he can astonish even when the proceedings feel familiar. A good bit of the credit for this also goes to his rhythm section. The saxist's most recent album is called Victory!, which sums up the breakthroughs his trio has registered since 2008's I Am I Am. Allen and drummer Rudy Royston listen so closely to each other on the bandstand that you could hear them responding with vigor to each others' change-ups, particularly on off-kilter melodies like "The Pilot's Compass" and "The Cross + The Crescent Sickle". When there's a breather, Gregg August holds forth with solos of uncommon lyricism, both bowed and plucked; it's where the chops he developed working with symphony orchestras become most resonant. When the band got to the set-closing version of "If You Could See Me Now", all at once it worked as crowd-pleaser, summation and a sly depiction of the road ahead.

Critical bias: I've pulled for Allen since his scuffling days.

Overheard: "Someone over there's talking. Remind them of the quiet policy."

Set list:
If You Could See Me Now
I Love You
Son House
The Pilot's Compass
Sura Hinda
Pagan
The Cross + The Crescent Sickle
East Boogie (Kolby's Theme)
Angel
Ready for Rudy (Blues)
If You Could See Me Now

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