Certain idiosyncratic jazz groupings come weighted with specific expectation. Trios without drums are typically compared to the Nat Cole Trio, and quartets without a chording instrument are set against either the Gerry Mulligan quartet or Ornette Coleman’s original group. Piano/guitar duos all labor under the microscope of the Bill Evans/Jim Hall records.
There is not a tougher choice than recording with a jazz trio consisting of tenor saxophone, acoustic bass, and drums. This is the kind of group that Sonny Rollins convened at New York’s Village Vanguard for his 1957 Blue Note recordings, and Joe Henderson followed suit at the same club with the same label in 1985 for his State of the Tenor discs. Both are now considered definitive — accurate and daring summations of the finest mainstream playing on the instrument at that moment. The bar for this kind of recording is set high indeed.
The music on I Am I Am, a new tenor sax trio record by JD Allen, seems to be the product of an awareness of this legacy. Something in the playing exudes a consciousness of history and an acknowledgment that this music is supposed to matter. Indeed, in addition to invoking Rollins and Henderson, Allen and his trio seem also to be knowingly chasing the sound of the later recordings made by John Coltrane. In short, I Am I Am is a jazz record that wants to place itself into history.
Allen is not a young lion anymore, but neither is he a well-known heavyweight. Originally from Detroit, Allen is now a stalwart on the New York scene. Though the trio he brings to I Am I Am is a longstanding group (with Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums), Allen is best known for his stint with vocalist Betty Carter, as well as apprenticeships with Ron Carter, Lester Bowie, Jack DeJohnette, Cindy Blackman, and Me’Shell Ndegeocello. After just two prior recordings as a leader (both with fairly standard post-bop quintets), he is now stepping up to the plate with significant purpose and intent. This music, the recording seems to shout, is important.
So, is it?
The opening track, “I Am-I Am”, plays like a manifesto or thesis statement. Allen intones a bare-bones contemplative theme that is echoed by the bass and paralleled by Royston’s mallets. The composition has the majesty of Coltrane pinned to it — a slow tempo, an elegant classicism and an austere beauty — but it feels like a miniature rather than a classic, something small and interesting rather than a monument. Many subsequent tracks play similarly. “Hajile” works a stately melody, with the drums coloring a counterpoint dialogue between tenor and bass, and has a logical and weighty feeling as Allen works motifs like Rollins and runs patterns like Coltrane. “Titus” has the air of a pronouncement about it, again with a repeated note from Allen defining the tune and the rolling mallets from Royston suggest A Love Supreme at its most declarative.
What makes these performances distinct from Coltrane’s work is a form of restraint and simplicity that comes from elsewhere in the jazz canon. Nearly all the tracks here are about four minutes long, and so the evocation of Coltrane is done with an efficient precision rather than the torrents of energy that some Coltrane devotees use. The sections of swing are precise and clean rather than frantic or searching, and group interaction has the elegance of chamber music rather than the volcanic abandon of Coltrane and Elvin Jones. In short, this disc sounds more like Joe Henderson’s State of the Tenor than it does like the work of Coltrane or Rollins.
When this music is working well — as on “Louisada”, which switches between polyrhythmic pedal tone bass and swing — it suggests a more modern and focused version of the tenor sax tradition that Allen obviously knows and loves. The group plays with wit and a sure, rubbery swing in many places. “Id” has very nearly a happy skip to its step, and “Ezekial” lets Royston set up a positively dancing set of figures on the cymbals before all gives way to ferocious swing — at mid-tempo and then double-time comet flight. Nice.
But a great deal of I Am I Am seems intent on calling the great spirits from the sky, yet doing so in compressed performances very nearly as short as pop songs. While clarity and avoiding self-indulgence have got to be good things in any art form, Allen’s trio seems only to be getting going here before then return to the theme and wrap up. You can choose your own metaphor here, but its like they never quite get the pot boiling. There’s plenty of fire in evidence, but the musicianship seems to need more time to reach full conflagration.
Repeated listenings reveal nuance and fine detail. Allen and August play brilliant counterpoint in places, and the compositions allow all the members of the group to carry the melodies in different ways. Indeed, I Am I Am would have to be measured as a strong disc and a step forward for the career of this very ambitious tenor player. Jazz should always sound this smart and accessible. But the disc is also curiously muted — it doesn’t get the heart racing, nor does it operate at the level of its justly famous predecessors from Coltrane, Rollins, or Henderson. Is that asking too much? Probably.
When the two State of the Tenor discs first came out, they were met with mixed praise from critics. Henderson’s playing could be elliptical and oblique, and his rhythm section was smart but not splashy. Perhaps JD Allen’s latest will eventually ripen into something great. After all, it was Henderson’s subsequent career (a kind of comeback for him in middle age) that made clear that his approach on his trio records was timeless and singular. I hope that JD Allen can prove this review shortsighted. The man has the talent and intelligence to create a very good record. My hopes for something beyond that may be my problem but not his.