Music: JD Allen blows into town

The stellar sax player joins the roster at the TA Jazz Festival

JD Allen (photo credit: CRUSHBOONE)
JD Allen
(photo credit: CRUSHBOONE)
JD Allen has been blowing up a storm for some years now. The 42-year-old Detroit-born saxophonist is one of the major draws at this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival and will be putting in his fifth appearance on these shores on November 26 and 27.
Allen, who will be joined by longtime collaborators bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, will play a tribute show to avant-garde pioneer Ornette Coleman, followed by a show based on Allen’s latest release, Graffiti. The saxman says he is honored to be doffing his hat to Coleman, who died in June at age 85.
The only real problem Allen had in preparing for the first of his two Tel Aviv gigs was selecting the numbers from such a vast body of work.
“I am focusing more on his actual trio stuff,” he says. “I think that is the best way to go about it rather than looking at his quartet music.”
Naturally, as a musician and, in fact, as someone who got the chance to mix it with the legendary free jazz founding father, Allen prefers to let his horn do the talking. However, if pressed, he manages to articulate his reverence for Coleman in words as well.
“For me, he represents the spirit of adventure and making the unknown a melody. I would say that the spirit of adventure, melody and embracing the now – that’s what he and his music have meant to me,” he says.
Allen first came across the great man’s work more than two decades ago.
“I heard him when I was in high school. It was a [1959 groundbreaking] record of his called The Shape of Jazz to Come,” he recounts.
It was something of a life changer for the youngster, even though he didn’t get too much official encouragement to follow Coleman’s free-flowing lead.
“I went to my high school teacher and I said, ‘Wow! I finally heard Ornette Coleman.’ He said I needed a lead stomach to digest that music. I asked my teacher what was wrong with it, and he said the music was really out there,” he continues.
But even as a teenager, Allen had been taking the wild and woolly route to musical exploration for a while.
“I had been listening to [early 1960s free jazz saxophonist] Albert Ayler first, so Ornette wasn’t that out to me.
Actually, he was very in, especially compared with some of the things I had been listening to, like Ayler, [saxophonist] Frank Lowe, those kinds of cats. Ornette Coleman was totally in, especially The Shape of Jazz to Come. In reality, a lot of that stuff was hi-tech bebop. So my teacher was saying ‘Don’t listen to that stuff,’ and I felt ‘This is it.’ To me it was the spirit of jazz and what that represented,” he explains.
For Allen, Coleman also represents a blend of the emotional and the cerebral. “He had so much knowledge, but he also played from the heart.”
That perfect combination of intelligence and feeling, says Allen, kept Coleman on an ever-ascending developmental continuum, underpinned by an abundance of energy.
“He was like a rocket ship going to the moon. Even when he was in his later years, when I heard that sound and I saw that white alto, it just got to me,” he recalls.
Allen says he is delighted to be coming back here and to have an opportunity to introduce his Israeli audience to material from his new album, and especially to have August and Royston with him for the ride.
“We have been together for about eight years now. I can listen to the older stuff we did, and I can hear the progress we have made together. I really enjoy playing with them,” he says.
Eight years is a pretty impressive stint for any band to put in together, especially in the jazz world, where artists tend to chop and change, both in the interests of varying their creative output and also simply keeping the wolves at bay. Naturally, sharing the bandstand and recording studio with a fixed lineup can help to engender a good level of understanding and respect among the players, and this can help to underpin flights of fancy and spawn envelope-pushing ideas.
“It’s great to have a long-standing relationship with somebody, and very important, especially these days. It is very important to have people you can communicate with, and they can help you achieve things. Anyway, Gregg and Rudy are better than me.
I’m only the guy who stands at the front,” laughs Allen.
Joking apart, Allen has certainly made strides himself over the last couple of decades, during which he has put out nine albums as leader.
Listening to Graffiti, one gets the impression that the reedman is older and wiser now and that he doesn’t have try too hard or too fast to make his presence felt.
“I feel like I respect spacer a lot more now,” he notes. “I know the value of space, realizing that it in itself is a note.
We have 12 notes, and the 13th note is space. It’s like when someone talks and then pauses, which allows you to reflect on what he’s just said. That’s what space is. I feel a lot more comfortable with it and learning how to use it more effectively than I did in the past. I’m not in a rush now.”
Other jazz standouts in the festival lineup include US vocalist Tierney Sutton’s tribute to Joni Mitchell; trumpeter Joe Magnarelli’s salute to the Blue Note label’s golden era; and veteran bebop alto saxophonist Richie Cole. On the Israeli side of the jazz tracks, the ones to watch for include New York-resident saxophonist Uri Gurvitz’s Sasha Argov slot, while flutist Hadar Noiberg will perform numbers from her new CD, From the Ground Up.
As always, there will be plenty of cross-genre entertainment on offer.
This includes a high-profile confluence between veteran pop-ethnic pianistflutist Shem Tov Levy and trombonist Avi Lebovich’s 13-piece Orchestra; pianist Uriel Herman will fuse jazz with progressive rock; Red Sea Jazz Festival artistic director and saxophonist Eli Degibri will join forces with veteran pop artists Shlomo Yidov and Yoni Rechter; and Rechter’s old pal from their Kaveret days, guitarist-vocalist Danny Sanderson, will present a highenergy program of R&B and soul. And if you’re looking for a dose of quality ethnojazz, head for pianist Omri Mor’s get-together with stellar percussionists Shlomo Bar and Zohar Fresco.
For tickets and more information: *9080 and