In a saxophone trio, there is lots of room to spaz out. J.D. Allen never does.
J.D. Allen is the kind of guy you want working for your logistics department. His new album Victory! is lean in length, by jazz standards: one dozen songs clocking in at 36 minutes. His playing has an economy to it. He states themes on the sax and plays light solos that don't stray too far from these main themes. On top of that, you can't get much sparser than sax, bass and drums. Hell, none of these guys can really play a musical chord in the technical sense.
This minimal approach didn't come from reining in himself and his players; it's just in his blood. "Wasting notes is a waste of time," he says, an attitude which reminds me of what Charlie Parker used to tell his band: "More than four choruses and you're just practicing." Allen wrote all but one of the songs here. All seem to be modest vehicles for a singular melodic idea. Even when he allows himself to flutter a note, like on "Sura Hinda", Allen is sure to stay within the scale. The listener doesn't get the feeling that dissonance is something the musicians are allergic to. It's just not necessary to the music.
The start is surprisingly unassuming. The album's cover has the name in bold caps, with an exclamation mark on the end. The title track kicks off the album, and it's about as far from loud and victorious as jazz can get. The first 40 seconds are Rudy Royston doing a roll on the snare while Gregg August plucks a few notes here and there. Then in comes a slow blues that in no way whatsoever calls attention to itself. Other compositions like "The Thirsty Ear," both movements of "The Pilot's Compass" and "Sura Hinda" up the ante somewhat, with tempo and mood changes, but only slightly. Even when he is the main voice for the tunes at hand, Allen never really indulges himself in a flashy solo.
The CD of Victory! comes with a short film encoded on the disc, approximately 10 minutes long and with dodgy audio. In it, Allen offers brief thoughts on adversity and the everyman's ability to turn himself around. The interesting thing is, at one point he talks about his horn being an outlet for hardships. That's not an uncommon sentiment among musicians, but the saxophone artistry of J.D. Allen in the studio is so contained and subtle, you have to wonder if he is strictly speaking about his live performances. Yet halfway through the film, he reveals a work ethic that makes more sense. He doesn't work on different pieces; he works on "one piece." Victory!, hence, is likely best approached as one piece.
As genuinely enthusiastic J.D. Allen seems about his music, Victory! doesn't feel like a statement. It feels like a gentle nudge. There is nothing inherently wrong with keeping it simple and not wanting to waste notes, but you have to wonder where Allen could go if he allowed himself more elbow room.