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JD Allen Goes Free Form And Improvisational On 'Radio Flyer'


This is FRESH AIR. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen has been leading a trio with the same musicians for 10 years now. Allen's previous album, "Americana," delved deep into the blues. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the sequel comes at that bluesy quality from a different direction.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Tenor saxophonist JD Allen with his longtime bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Was a time when Allen devised rules or little games to guide the trio's improvising. But with the right players, after a while, you don't need to preplan everything. They start adding spontaneous complications in the same spirit. So for his new album, "Radio Flyer," JD Allen went the other way. He brought in some shortish, simply structured pieces that the players hadn't seen before. And they started recording without rehearsing first. They did record a few versions of each tune, but the opening track, "Sitting Bull," was a first take.


WHITEHEAD: JD Allen's trio, plus guest Liberty Ellman on guitar for a little extra spark. Allen didn't write out any chord changes to accompany his melodies, those roadmaps of harmony jazz musicians usually improvise from, which poses the question - what do they do after they play the melody? The players might say, hang back and take their cues from the leader, following a little behind. This is from the same tune.


WHITEHEAD: But then half a minute later on "Sitting Bull," as their reaction time speeds up and they firm up the tempo, all the parts fall into place at the right moments. And they hit their groove.


WHITEHEAD: There's a bluesy directness to JD Allen's tenor saxophone. He doesn't overplay or underplay. One or two melodies echo Albert Ayler or late-period John Coltrane, with their free jazz spirituals. But Allen doesn't imitate their saxophone styles; he's got his own dark tone. The main influence here is Ornette Coleman, who also wrote bluesy tunes without fixed chords. Ornette's bass players might imply a sequence of changing chords without getting too specific. Gregg August does a bit of that here, circling around the home key.


WHITEHEAD: When you're flying free, it helps to have a fearsomely swinging drummer like Rudy Royston, who's all the more effective for sometimes making you wait for that buoyant lift. Punctuating the action, he knows when to goose a soloist and when to hang back. The same goes for guitarist Liberty Ellman, whose embroidery complicates the picture but doesn't obscure it.


WHITEHEAD: JD Allen's trio plus one get that happy Ornette bounce that's too rare in modern jazz. The highest compliment to pay Liberty Ellman is that the guitarist sounds like he's been playing with these guys all along. He's one more wild card at a wild-card session. "Radio Flyer" can sound so clear and focused, you'd think the band had rehearsed all week.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?". He reviewed "Radio Flyer," the new recording by saxophonist JD Allen's trio.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be the New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker. He also covered the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama White Houses and covered the Clinton impeachment. Baker was one of the three Times reporters who conducted an on-the-record interview with President Trump last week. We'll talk about some of the unprecedented actions and comments coming from the Trump White House. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.