With a New Trio, JD Allen Channels an Eruption of Emotions

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JD Allen’s latest effort, Barracoon, is predicated on emotion more than charts.

(Photo: Robert I. Sutherland-Cohen)

Bar Bayeux is a narrow venue tucked between a hair salon and a deli on Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue.

There’s just enough room for a few people to congregate in the front, by a big window, and another small area of open floor in the back. It’s a Wednesday night in late June, and drummer Nic Cacioppo is setting up his kit in the corner as saxophonist JD Allen makes the rounds, shaking hands with the friendly faces who’ve come out to a record release show for Barracoon (Savant). When bassist Ian Kenselaar turns up, wheeling an upright and lugging a bass guitar and a small amp, the three leap into action.

A typical Allen set is loosely structured, yet intensely focused—and tonight is no exception. The pieces flow together with few pauses, so it’s up to Kenselaar and Cacioppo to watch carefully and listen closely. At Bar Bayeux, Allen, 46, starts each new tune from the embers of the one before, like a chain-smoker. His melodies are short and mantra-like, drawn from the blues and burnished by his tone, which combines elements from the John Coltrane of Crescent and the Sonny Rollins of East Broadway Run Down, but peppered with a sly phrasal invention all his own.

Allen’s new rhythm section is youthful—Cacioppo is 33, Kenselaar just 25—and they go hard. Early in the trio’s set, Cacioppo takes a solo that explodes with a furious energy, but is filtered with precision. His sticks dance across the snare and tom, leaving sonic craters in their wake, as he stares ahead with the impassivity of an assembly-line worker snapping parts together. Later, when Cacioppo suddenly lets his mouth fall open and his tongue loll nearly to his collar, it’s so startling it’s almost hilarious.

This wild, unpredictable force is successfully captured on Barracoon, a studio disc. The program’s nine originals and a rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star” are immediately recognizable as Allen’s work; his voice is one of the most distinctive in jazz today. Whether it’s a fast piece like the opening title track, a bluesy swinger like “The Goldilocks Zone” or a ballad like “The Immortal (H. Lacks),” the melodies always have an ineffable Allen flavor. What sets Barracoon apart from the albums he made with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston (and, on 2017’s Radio Flyer and 2018’s Love Stone, Liberty Ellman on guitar) during the past 10 yeasr is the increased rhythmic abstraction provided by Kenselaar and Cacioppo. He’s leading, but they’re pushing him. The new album also continues Allen’s prodigious output: Beginning in 2012, Savant has released an album by Allen each year.

Ironically, the saxophonist wasn’t looking to start a new band. Kenselaar and Cacioppo were originally substitutes while August and Royston were busy with their own projects. But gradually Allen, who apprenticed under Betty Carter, realized that he had reached a position where he could mentor younger players. “I know a little something, you know a little something, we’ll get together,” is how he described it. “I felt I had something to offer, and they’re a lot younger, so I felt they had things to offer me.”

The new trio began performing late-night sets twice a month at Smalls, getting tunes together and developing a collective voice. By early 2019, Allen felt they were ready to enter the studio. Still, he checked in with August and Royston. “I got the blessing from Rudy and Greg before I did it. I talked to them and told them what I was gonna do and they said that was totally cool.”

The original plan had been to record a two-tenor album with David Murray. A raucous set at Winter Jazzfest laid the groundwork for such a project, but Murray’s schedule didn’t permit it. “I didn’t want to wait another year,” Allen said. “I wanted to get on Barracoon, because I have another plan in store for next year.”

Many of Allen’s previous recordings have either a conceptual throughline or a defining mood. His 2011 release Victory!, which packed 12 tracks into just 36 minutes, was the August-Royston trio’s third release, but it felt like a coming-out party. The following year, Allen switched labels from Sunnyside to Savant and released The Matador And The Bull, a moody and, yes, bullfight-themed album infused with a dark and romantic aura. After two introspective and questing quartet records, he reunited the trio for 2015’s bouncing Graffiti and 2016’s Americana (Musings On Jazz And Blues), possibly his most critically praised release.

Barracoon doesn’t have a single mood, though. It’s an eruption of emotions, a storm of sound. The result is perhaps the closest that Allen has come to releasing a free-jazz disc. “This record was pretty hard to write, because how do you write feelings? This was feelings more than anything else,” he explained.

In the album’s liner notes, which he reads aloud to launch the Bar Bayeux performance, Allen writes, “I think it would be dishonest of me to pretend that the unveiling of today’s political climate (the world over) did not play a part in how I personally played. These particular vehicles of expression fit the bill for me to have a good scream and a good cry.”

The book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”—which inspired the album’s title—is an oral history told by Cudjoe Lewis to Zora Neale Hurston in 1927. In 1860, Lewis was captured by an army in Africa and sold into slavery. He was brought across the Atlantic Ocean on the Clotilda, the last ship known to have transported enslaved Africans to the United States. In the book, Lewis recounts his childhood in Africa, his capture and enslavement, as well as his role in founding Africatown, a self-contained community in Alabama. He died in 1935; the book wasn’t published until 2018.

“I read Barracoon and fell in love with the book,” Allen said. “It’s a hard read because she didn’t change the dialect. So, it was interesting to just try to get through, but it reminded me of my grandfather and how he spoke.

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