Tuesday, May 31, 2016

JD ALLEN ON HIS NEW ALBUM 'AMERICANA', HIS BLUE COLLAR APPROACH TO MAKING MUSIC, AND ALWAYS BEING A NERVOUS WRECK PERFORMING IN HIS HOMETOWN


JD Allen
The consensus among many JD Allen enthusiasts, jazz critics, and jazz bloggers is “Americana (Musing on Jazz And Blues) is the saxophonist’s best creation to date. “This record is, to me, an instant classic, right up there with “A Love Supreme,” and “Glass Bead Games,” and the like. First of all, the music is completely honest, without guile, straight from the heart. There is no agenda here, nothing slick or contrived. Just the heart of jazz, which is the blues.” that’s a piece of a quote that the founder of the Detroit Groove Society house concert series Andrew Rothman posted on Facebook a day after hearing “Americana”(Musing on Jazz and Blues). 

Allen is forty-three, a native Detroiter, and he got his start in the D with a jazz group named Legacy years before he moved to New York. The depth of Allen’s imagination coupled with his boundless prowess on the tenor sax has drawn comparison to greats such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Allen hasn't achieved the celebrity those jazz icons have, but he’s well on his way. Among discriminating jazz people, Allen is already a household name. Right now, he has ten albums to his credit. Since joining Savant Records in 2012, he’s made a recording yearly.

Allen acknowledges jazz saxophonists worth their weight in gold tackles the blues at some point in their development. John Coltrane, Branford Marsalis, Booker Ervin,  and Gene Ammons did it. A few Sundays ago, I Dig Jazz talked with Allen via telephone about “Americana (Musing on Jazz And Blues,” his admiration for his longstanding trio, and other topics dear to the saxophonist’s development as a musician.

I want to start by putting you on the spot. Is "Americana (Musing on Jazz And Blues)" your favorite JD Allen record?
Well, each record that I make it's usually me advancing as a musician. At this moment, this is the better version of what I'm doing now. The next one will be better. Hopefully, the goal is to be better every time. At this moment, this is the best version of me for 2016.

You've been with your current trio drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Gregg August for a very long time. It seems as if the trio is intimately familiar with each other's psyche.
It’s basically what you said. We've gotten to the point where we're all pretty familiar with each other, so the fact that I don't have to say much in the studio. I trust them enough with whatever material I bring in. That's Important because we usually have a day of recording. The last few records, we haven't rehearsed. A lot of times, we go to the studio, and Gregg and Rudy would have just seen this material for the first time.

In that type of situation, you need people that you're familiar with and that you're comfortable with. People that can also push and challenge you. That’s why you want to keep a band together as long as possible. It helps you grow, and it helps the music go forward. That's basically all that is. If you look at history, a lot of the great bands had usually been together for a while. I'm just trying to follow along in that part of the tradition.
I'm not a project-oriented type guy. You won't get an experiment from me in terms of this is the JD Allen experiment. It's not a knock against anyone else who does that. I just try to develop a sound and improve with each recording. Rudy and Gregg, help me do that.

Did you have to test drive a lot of musicians before you found Gregg and Rudy?
Gregg was a neighbor of mine in Brooklyn. I used to see him walking his dog. I had played with Gregg first in his band. It was kind of like one day I ran into Gregg in the neighborhood, and I told him I was working on some trio stuff. He suggested Rudy to me. Back then, I hadn't met Rudy yet.

At the first rehearsal, man, I felt this was the unit. I won't say that we gelled immediately, but I was like, Yeah, this is a good situation. It was a good fit. It was like trying on shoes. Shoes that feel so good and that look so good. You’re going to wear them as long as possible.
That's a great analogy.

That was it. I would say that I think by the time we came out with this recording called "Victory!” we started to gel. We started to come together. We’re still improving. Like I said, the trio should get better with every recording. When you listen to a musician, you should hear progress.

What's the ingredient that keeps Rudy and Gregg coming back, and that keeps the music interesting?

I don't know the ingredient. When I'm the leader of a situation, I ask that musicians not get comfortable. I feel if you are not walking off the stage sweating, then you didn't play hard. I try to keep a blue collar mentality towards playing live and recording.
Rudy and Gregg, they fit the bill. They never relax, it's never a situation where we relax and are just dialing it in or phoning it in. We just play as hard as possible. Branford Marsalis said that you have to beat people over the head with jazz. You have to hit them with energy and power for them to appreciate it.

I think in my heart of hearts it's the energy that people want. That's what they want to get from music. Jazz can provide that.
I don't know if that attracts Rudy and Gregg to the situation. I haven't thought about why they still play with me. I hope that it is interesting to them. I hope that would be their answer if someone had asked them that question.

I hear Booker Ervin and Branford Marsalis in your playing. Were either big influences on you?
Branford is a super big influence on me. I think he was the first guy that I’d heard in my younger days who had that cry in his playing, maybe that's the blues. What drew me to his playing, he had sensibilities of both Mr. Rollins and Mr. Coltrane in his playing, but yet he was still himself in that.

That attracted me to him as a younger player because, before that, I was checking out saxophonists Albert Ayler and David Murray and then cats like Frank Lowe. I was a James Carter clone in Detroit. I wanted to be James Carter.
Listening to Marsalis that introduced me to Ornette Coleman and a lot of other people. You're right to say that Branford is an influence of mine.

 Anybody worth his salt should listen to Booker Ervin. He has that cry also, and he's one of the Texas tenors, who every tenor saxophone player should check out.

What was the impetus for making “Americana (Musing on Jazz And Blues)” at this stage of your career?
Well once again, it was something for growth. In a way, I guess there's a selfish element to making a record. When you make a recording, you're documenting your growth and where you're at that time. I felt developing a closer relationship to the blues would make me a better player. It was purely selfish, man. I want to be a better musician. To do that, I had to get into the blues.

Examples that made me look in that direction, of course, "Coltrane Plays the Blues". That's one of my favorite records. Branford Marsalis’s "I Heard You Twice the First Time" is another one. Years ago that kind of hip me to the fact that man, maybe at some point I have to deal with the blues. My heroes are dealing with the blues, and they can all play their asses off, so maybe that'll help me get to that.

I tried my hand at it because the guys I look up to, who I've just named, have done recordings like that. I had an opportunity to record, so I gave it a shot not knowing if people were going to like it. I was pretty afraid before I did it. I thought maybe it wouldn't be interesting enough to people; maybe it's not flashy enough. It was something that I wanted to do for development. It wasn't anything like this is a good marketing idea. It was just purely selfish. I wanted to grow.

One of the standout songs on the album is "Bigger Thomas"…
Now see, that was the one I didn't think anybody was going to dig.

Was the song inspired by your investigation of Richard Wright's novel "Native Son"?
Yeah, I love Richard Wright. 

Talk some about the song’s evolution.
It's not a blues per se, but there is a blues section to it. You have a certain maze of chords that you got to go through that some people would associate with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” chords, which I stretched out. I'm not going to get too technical, but the last eight or sixteen bars is in C-sharp minor, which I do play the blues on top of.

Okay, where it's placed in the record starts out with the straight up slow blues, and you get into the spiritual blues, and then you get into folkloric type blues and then "Bigger Thomas" was to represent the city blues.

I'm a big Richard Wright fan, man. I love his stuff. To me, that name fit that song in the sense of it is an urban thing, but yet as sophisticated as it's trying to be the result is it gets back to the blues. 
The last time you were in Detroit, you performed at the Detroit Groove Society house concert series. The trio tore it up.

Oh, we tried, man. We tried to burn the house down, in a good way.
When you return to Detroit for your concert on June 12th at Cliff Bell's, will the set list include music from “Americana?

Yeah, we're going to play something from "Americana". I usually play something from every record. I have a book that's huge, and I never know what I'm going to play. I just get a feel for what the audience is feeling and what I'm feeling being in that room. I just go for it.
Whatever we play, we're going to play as hard as possible, man. That's my motto. If we play "Mary Had a Little Lamb", we're going to try to burn that down.

What does it mean to you when you have an opportunity to return home to perform?
To play at home is very nerve wrecking because I know I can't bullshit anybody in Detroit. I come from a town with a rich history of great saxophonists. I mean, you got Larry Smith there, you got James Carter and Vincent Bowens there.  I mean all types of people come out of Detroit.

I usually get nervous. I have to close my eyes and just block everybody out just to play. Sometimes I'm scared, man. I hope the people come out. You never know if anybody at home is going to come. The show I did last year at the Detroit Groove Society, I was surprised to see anybody there, man. It made me feel great. I was worried nobody was going to show up. I'm happy to play at home. It's a good time to see family, to see Detroit. That's always a good feeling, and a chance to recharge.

I have to go home and recharge and remember why I'm making music. You can get away and forget why in the hell you did this in the first place. When I go home, people remind me, and certain things I see in Detroit remind me this is why I’m a musician. This is what being a musician is about. You got to keep that spirit that we have in Detroit in you. That's important. You never want to get highfalutin where you get away from what it is that made you. I wish I could play in Detroit more.

We wish you could play here more often, too.
I would love to get to the kids there, man. I see this Detroit scene with younger musicians. If there was some way, I could get to them. If I could see the younger people there just once a month, man, I would do it. If there were a situation that opened up for me to do that, I would be more than happy than to come home and deal with that. People like Harold McKinney and Donald Walden helped me. If they had not been born, man, I probably would have ended up in Jackson State Penitentiary, the way I was going.

Wow!
I'm an Eastside boy. I'm from Mack Avenue. If I didn't run into Ali Jackson or James Carter, Alex Hardy or Ernie Rogers at Northwestern High School, I could’ve had a different path. It was laid out for me to go a different route, but thank God I found the horn, and I was blessed to go somewhere else. I love Detroit. I love the musicians there. If I could be an influence to somebody there, I would jump on that. I try to reach out to some of the younger guys on Facebook, but I haven't had the opportunity to sit down and chat with them. Maybe I can hook something up when I get home. I'll come in a day early, and we can all get together and just play. I love it, man. I'm proud to be from the D. Every opportunity I get to say that, I say it.

The JD Allen Trio performs at Cliff Bell's Sunday June 12th 7:00 PM - 10:00 PM  $25.00. 2030 Park Ave. Detroit, MI 48226 (313) 961-3543


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