Shine! is the second collection from the J.D. Allen Trio, a jazz group with a laser focus and serious skills. This is a tenor saxophone trio—the leader on tenor, Gregg August on bass, and drummer Rudy Royston—working without the chordal sugar of piano or guitar, and contending with the legacies of Rollins, later Coltrane, and Joe Henderson. Allen’s stated intent is to perform music in this line, but to do so with a concise, “jukebox mentality”. Most of the performances here are barely longer than a song you would hear on the radio.
This is something different and something challenging and something familiar. Both the trio form and the particular sound of Allen’s playing evoke a specific set of imposing voices from the past. But the conscious decision to make these performances terse is almost radically new. Not that jazz is always bloviation, but this style typically prizes a longer-form exploration of motif and theme. Allen seeks to explore the trio form in short bursts that seem to relate, almost like a suite. Using a familiar sound, he has set out in a new(ish) direction.
In reviewing the trio’s first effort, I Am I Am, I heard all kinds of excellence, but I missed the sense of searching that longer forms might have induced. Was Allen’s work truly a progression from his influences or just a superb rehash and a minimal change?
Shine! shows Allen sticking resolutely to his guns, making the case that his saxophone trio “miniatures” are fully potent. “East Boogie (Kolby’s Theme)” certainly works in its current form—a dancing melody that has the joyful bounce of Ornette Coleman, but the hefty sound of Coltrane, with Royston loose and complex like Elvin Jones and the weight of Allen’s tenor never giving over to true playfulness. The tune doesn’t reach for ecstasy, but it’s a pleasure still.
“Sonhouse” finds Royston even more explicitly being Elvin, polyrhythms crossing ingeniously as Allen explores a short motivic theme with a blues feel. Where Coltrane would sweep long runs, Allen is more likely to jab, stringing together combinations made up of individually boppish licks. But the whole thing is very, very Coltrane-esque nevertheless. The themes themselves are individually clever—such as the pleasant up-and-down of “Marco Polo”—but they are almost all short, leading to quick improvisations that have a sameness inside your ear, particularly because the individual tracks are short enough to blend into each other.
I am partial to “Angel” and “Teo (Ted’s Theme)”, both of which begin as ballads with very fresh melodies. “Angel” develops into a relaxed, loping swing, over which Allen solos with particular originality and ease. August also sounds particularly fluid here. “Teo” begins with the theme in the bass, with Allen playing it second before giving way to another statement by August. Allen’s solo is rhapsodic and free, with bowed bass working as part of the accompaniment. On these tunes, the shadow of Rollins and Coltrane is not as dark, and you can hear plainly how J.D. Allen also reveres players such as Dewey Redman.
But that is the dilemma with Shine!. It hardly lacks for strong playing, and one can only applaud the seriousness of intent behind a project with so little treacle. But Allen continues to labor in the vineyard of his predecessors, working through ideas, modes, and structures that are keenly reminiscent of an earlier era.
Given that this music has hardly been exhausted, it’s good news that J.D. Allen and his trio are massaging it, extending it, compressing it, and bringing it to a new generation. Allen’s muscular tone and fertile imagination make for arresting listening. Clearly Allen feels that, in the trio, he has found his voice. Whether it is ultimately his or not, my one reasonable reservation, it is still worth hearing.