“Radio Flyer” is the latest in a long series (11 albums I think?) of uniformly impeccable offerings from saxophonist JD Allen. Every album displays his honest working methods and showcases his beautiful strong tone and, despite his obvious command of harmony, his clear sense of melody both in his writing and his improvising. This strong melodic sense having somewhat disappeared from many of today’s gunslinging tenor players. But Allen has always shown that he has a deeper understanding of what made The Greats great. Not that he sounds like any of them of course, you can hear the influences but he unquestionably has his own very strong voice and it is this that we hear to the fore on all of his recordings.
On this latest album there is something of a new development going on. I wouldn’t call it a major change of direction so much as a deeper exploration of some of the possibilities hinted at previously in his music. By which I mean that the direction the music on this album takes has always been evident in Allen’s concept, sound-wise and otherwise. He is one of those musicians who have absorbed many aspects of the greats of this music, their concepts as well as their sound, but also the earlier music out of which their music was developed. His last album “Americana” showed that he understood that “the 12 bar blues form and the so called blues scale have very little to do with the blues” as he succinctly put it himself. Sound/timbre can carry more information/feeling than form or harmony and Allen understands this.
This time the music has a less planned structure to the form of the songs. Indeed the music is played without pre-arranged form or harmonic sequence or even tempo. The melodies/themes are relatively short and are played rubato, or without a specific statement of time. The themes then develop, both melodically and rhythmically, as each soloist plays (and as each of the other musicians react in their support) during their respective passages where they take the lead line. Even when the group moves into tempo the time is still unfettered by barlines.
This is a very spontaneous approach to music making but in the right hands always leads to the best music I believe. Having the right fellow travellers onboard is paramount in this way of playing and Allen has chosen his colleagues wisely. Both bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston have played on several albums (and no doubt many performances) with the leader in a trio format and along with Allen proved to be a magic triangle where the chemistry between them added up to considerably more than the sum of its parts. Adding another instrument here, the highly imaginative electric guitar of Liberty Ellman, has brought another dimension to this group and Ellman’s sound and playing serves this more open concept beautifully.
The music here is very expressive, full of life and energy. There is a strong group sound with the individual members’ personalities shining through. Everything is beautifully played and has a palpable “in the moment” character throughout. This album is a perfect illustration of what can be achieved with a deep understanding of what makes the music work and a spontaneous approach to structure along with the letting go of the fear of failing. The distinction between “Freedom to” rather than “Freedom from”. This is vibrant, soulful music that, like all Allen’s previous albums, will stand the test of time. Long may he continue.