JD Allen Finds Purpose

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JD Allen headed back to Cincinnati during COVID-19, where he woodshedded and created Queen City.

(Photo: Bart Babinski)

Queen City (Savant), JD Allen’s latest album and his first solo-saxophone release, is an ambitious endeavor that he hadn’t planned on making until later in his career. “This was supposed to be a much later project — recorded maybe when I’d turn 60 or 65 years old,” Allen explained via Zoom in July.

During the past year-and-a-half, the pandemic put Allen into an existential crisis. And with that, of course, came fear. “Fear that there are more important things than music,” he said. “COVID-19 put things in perspective like, ‘Is it that important to be concerned about music at this time?’ The pandemic made me realize that it’s very important for me to keep my sanity. And that need is behind me making Queen City. So, it seems as if the world decided for me that it was time for me to do a solo saxophone record.”

During the pandemic, Allen moved from New York to Cincinnati — known to many as the Queen City — and engaged in the prescribed social distance, which for a long time hindered many opportunities to collaborate with others and perform live. Facing this reality, Allen learned how to create music alone.

“There’s nowhere to hide,” Allen described of recording Queen City. “I learned what I can and cannot do, and what I need to work on.”

In preparation to go it alone with the saxophone, Allen studied other jazz solo saxophone albums by Steve Lacy, Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, Coleman Hawkins and Sam Newsome. He also listened to European classical solo saxophone albums and a lot of poetry, particularly the works of Sekou Sundiata.

The biggest learning curve for Allen was to ensure that the songs weren’t too long, which is interesting because he’s already known for his pithy melodicism. “With [Queen City], I wanted to make something in which the listener could have a harmless four minutes to the max and enjoy it,” Allen said. “And then let the subject matter move on to something else.”

Allen recorded the album in three seven-hour days at Cincinnati’s Monastery Studio in early 2021. He recalled that it wasn’t until the last day that he became comfortable. “I realized that the process that I needed to achieve my goal was utilizing the [studio’s] space as if it was the band. That’s a unique experience. And it has changed me, hopefully for the better.”

That solitary creative process required Allen to rely upon his mental stamina as much it did the physicality of playing solo saxophone for long periods. He likened it to sitting alone in a room, talking to himself, and thinking about the architecture of a conversation.

For sure, Allen sculpts sleek melodic passages that take on the logic of well-paced soliloquies with just the right amount of silence to allow listeners to reflect on what’s being heard. Queen City bookends with four standards. The album kicks off with a rapturous rendition of “Three Little Words” (by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar) followed by a passionate reading of the American folk song “Wildwood Flower.” Toward the end of Queen City, Allen delivers an oblique take on “Just A Gigolo” — the Leonello Casucci/Julius Brammer/Irving Carter gem — followed by an alluring interpretation of “These Foolish Things” (by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey).

What makes Allen’s renditions wondrous is his approach. He doesn’t start with the melodies. Instead, he zeros in on specific lyrics, which sometimes come in the middle or the end. Then he uses that portion as his launching pad.

A closer examination of Allen’s take on “Just A Gigolo” reveals that he’s exploring the lyric’s darkest sentiments about aging and being alone after decades of fostering listless romances. On “Three Little Words,” Allen begins by focusing on the phrase “I love you,” while on “These Foolish Things,” he emphasizes the latter part of the ruminative lyrics about two loves walking the streets like dreamers after the last bar closes.

“If you know the lyrics to ‘These Foolish Things,’ you will understand clearly as to why I played that tune at the end of the disc,” Allen said. “That portion of lyrics speaks about this shared experience that many of us have.”

In between the covers, Queen City boasts nine originals that Allen composed for the project. There’s “Maude,” a steely-yet-elegant ballad, which pays homage to Allen’s sister; “O.T.R.,” a probing improvisational piece that toasts Over-The-Rhine, a once predominately African-American Cincinnati community that is now undergoing gentrification for better and worse; and “Gem And Eye,” a whimsical portrait of his friendship and collaboration with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Eric Revis — both of whom are Geminis. Other standouts include the swirling “Mother,” the pensive “Retrograde” and the swaggering “Queen City.”

When composing, Allen said that he didn’t have a clear sets of melodies. Instead, he wrote down series of notes that he felt could work together and enable him to craft memorable improvisations. “I started playing with just a series of notes without initially assigning them any rhythmic values,” he explained. “I improvised the series of notes differently each time. I called the improvisations life forms that are supposed to sound differently each time.”

While moving to Cincinnati was unplanned, the city’s slower pace provided head space to contemplate where he and his family would head, and where life is headed for Black Americans. The last day of recording Queen City occurred two days before the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., in response to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s election defeat.

“We all knew that was coming. I am surprised it did not go that go much farther,” Allen said of what many called an insurrection. “I hope to God that it does not go any farther.”

With COVID-19 as a deadly backdrop, the news cycles were also consumed with heated protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement in response to police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Ahmaud Arbery’s murder by white supremacist vigilantes in Glynn County, Georgia.

“The importance of art for purpose came into focus during that time,” Allen said. “Seeing a grown man cry for his mother who was no longer here — I mean, it still brings me to tears. But we, as Black and brown people, know that this has been going on for a long time. And for our caucasian brothers and sisters, unfortunately that situation put into focus for them what we have been telling them all of these years.”

Those events made Allen realize that many in the jazz community could no longer insulate themselves inside the confines of high art and aesthetics without responding to the ugly realities of sociopolitical injustices.

“We get opportunities to show high art in these situations that the average person does not have access to,” Allen said. “So, looking at that and thinking about a lot of social injustices around the world, I realized that every time I pick up the tenor saxophone, it should be an act of activism for me.

“As a jazz musician, I’m holding the position for the next person of color to take the mantle, to take the ball and run it further down the field. Because art in itself is now a luxury that you need a lot of finances to do. It was not like that when I first got in. My goal now is to learn how to become an artistic activist, because I see that as being important and getting back to the music for purpose aspect of it.”

After working through the pandemic, Allen is now inspired to be more forthcoming about his sociopolitical perspectives on stage, especially on the microphone. Anyone who has attended his live shows knows that Allen speaks very little during performances.

“I remember someone came up to me and said, ‘You need to speak to the audience.’ But, quite frankly, I was always afraid of what I was going to say, if I did talk,” Allen said. “Seriously, I was afraid of what I would say. I know I do not do commercials well. Maybe that is a Sagittarius part of me. We are known for having blunt traits. But now, I think the difference is that I am willing to talk without a horn and do my part, man. I do not want to just sit back and watch and be a spectator. That is not the spirit of this music for me. I was taught that we are doing this for a purpose.

“Jazz musicians have a bird’s-eye view of a lot of different worlds. So, I am not going to jump online and say, ‘Hey, I am going to make you say Black American Music’ — which I am down with — when referring to this music. Does the marginalized person in the streets even care about what it is called? But that’s who I’m concerned with: the person in the streets. Because I believe that makes us relevant, when we are attached to things that affect marginalized people. So, I am willing to talk about that a bit more.”

Soon after worldwide protests erupted upon Floyd’s death, Allen teamed up with dancer and singer Aleta Brown and alto saxophonist Jacob Duncan, to launch WE INSIST!, a jazz and Black arts action community designed to stimulate discussion and collaboration to protect Black lives through arts education, advocacy and grassroots entrepreneurship.

WE INSIST! also tackles intersectional topics such as state-sponsored police brutality, hiring practices, gentrification, patriarchy, sexuality orientation, discrimination and the eradication of Black economic power.

Revis, who has known Allen since the early 1990s, says that the two have talked for years about sociopolitical issues — from racism and hiring practices to environmental injustice. While he recognizes that Allen hadn’t been the most vocal person on stage before the pandemic, he saw the saxophonist’s emergence as a community organizer.

“He really took the helm at organizing a lot of these meetings,” Revis said. “That is one thing that I can say that I have truly evolved with him. I can’t say he’s been a social butterfly in the past. But now, with a lot of group meetings and discussions, JD has facilitated a lot of them. I’ve definitely seen him step up.”

“Last year, even with the political upheaval and the world seemingly stopping, we got a chance to take stock and see how much we weigh in this world as creative beings,” Allen said. “We took stock of what it means to play in a place that’s not owned by Black people. Then it was like, ‘OK, who is going in these spaces? Can marginalized people can get in?’

“Many marginalized people cannot aspire to art now because of the lack of income or access to things. More than ever, Black, brown and other marginalized people are not able to get into the arts because it is not in their communities,” he continued.

“I got it because it was through the Detroit public school system. If I did not get it like that, I would not have got it. We are learning how to work with different institutions like WGBO, the Black Rock Coalition and Black Women Rock that want to help us achieve these goals. We also want writers, visual artists and thinkers in various communities to give people of any age access to art, so that they can start using art as a way of transforming their thinking and become critical thinkers for the future — whether they become artists or not.”

Allen argues that securing voting rights is the new major battle in the United States. He’s recently finished recording a trio album with Revis and Waits. Under the banner, WE UP, RE UP! — an extension of WE INSIST! — the trio plans on touring to Chicago, Detroit, Nebraska and the Deep South in the near future and use its platform to drum up voter registration and host guest speakers to educate people on how voting suppression threatens democracy for everyone.

“I’m glad that I’ve gotten old enough to realize that I’m doing this music for a purpose,” Allen said. “The pandemic brought that realization out. And Queen City is sort of a representation of that purpose.” DB



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