Saxophonist JD Allen’s musical career seems to bring him such joy: He loves the exploration, growth, the hard work. Allen recently released an album of all ballads, titled Love Stone, featuring bassist Gregg August, drummer Rudy Royston, and guitarist Liberty Ellman. In a recent WBGO interview, Allen said that the all-ballads album was a real challenge: “I’ve listened to so many ballads. Whittled it down to nine tunes I thought I could play pretty on. Maybe it’s a love letter to myself. Maybe I’m the dearest, maybe I’m the pretty one.”
In a departure from his regular trio, Allen will be bringing bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Malick Koly to The Jazz Gallery for two sets for a group he’s calling his “young blood trio.” Once considered a Young Lion himself, Allen moved to New York from Detroit in the 1990s and immediately began working with an impressive cross-section of the jazz community, including notables such as George Cables, Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, and Butch Morris, and contemporaries like Orrin Evans, Gerald Cleaver, Eric Revis, Marcus Gilmore, Meshell Ndegéocello, and Duane Eubanks. We had a wonderful conversation via phone this week, covering his exploration of these ballads, as well as working with young musicians, and his hope to one day score a film.
JD Allen: Alright brother, shoot away.
The Jazz Gallery: Great, let’s jump right in. Congrats on the new album, I really like it, it sounds fantastic. Have you been pleased with its reception?
JDA: Yeah, I’m pleased. People have listened to it. But already, I’m on to the next one. I’m recording in January, and now my energy is going toward putting together the material for that. I only look at the reception for a little bit to see if I can get any insight into what I could have done better.
TJG: What does that insight look like, in terms of the latest album?
JDA: I had some changes as far as my mouthpiece, and some people commented on the sound, which is good. Initially, I was pretty afraid to release an all-ballads recording, because it felt so anti-now, everything is about fast pace. But I can’t honestly say I ran across any press that was negative. People commented on tone, and I was working on my sound just for this ballads recording, you know. Now, I’m planning on going in another direction. Hopefully I’ll be doing a recording with tenor saxophonist David Murray, so I’m working on the material for that.
TJG: Duo saxophone, or with band? Gregg and Rudy?
JDA: It’ll be two tenors, bass, and drums, without piano or guitar. I’m thinking of probably having Gregg and Rudy, but I might make a departure on this one. I don’t want the water to get too still. Plus they’re both pretty busy, so I want to give them the space to do what they have to do. I might make a departure just for this record.
TJG: A couple more questions about the last album. I think it’s beautiful, and very much of-the-times, to have an all-ballads album. Everyone needs a moment to slow down. Did you have any artists in mind who have done similar all-ballad albums?
JDA: Definitely. Of course. Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, John Coltrane. I considered Branford Marsalis’s record Eternal as a model of where I could go. I even tried taking it from a perspective as if Sonny Rollins had done a ballads recording, and was checking out a lot of his ballad stylings, and using that as a model also. The tenor saxophone has a rich tradition in ballad playing, so there was a lot to pull from.
TJG: I checked out your interview on WBGO, where you were talking about how hard it was to go through all these tunes and find these ballads. I loved when you said “This album was the hardest thing in the world to do… Maybe it’s a love letter to myself.” When you listen back, do you hear you giving yourself some love and kindness?
JDA: You know, I might have said this before, but sometimes, on a human level, you go through things, good, bad, indifferent, thinking you’re the only one. I realized, after looking at all of these songs, that love is a very old story [laughs]. The ballads are usually about joy, or love lost, so it was nice to identify with that. I was checking out the lyrics also, because I wanted to know the lyrics of the songs that I was playing, so that was really interesting, and helpful at times, leaning lyrics and thinking about another sucker out there [laughs]. Male or female, I might add!
TJG: I hear you, I hear you. Can you tell me a little about your life outside of music? Where do you live these days? What do your days look like?
JDA: Currently I’m living in Jersey City. Like any other Joe out there, I usually work from home. I practice, I get up, and I perform at night. When I’m not performing, I’m practicing. Or going to the movies [laughs].
TJG: Do you check out a lot of movies?
JDA: I try to, man. There are quite a few that I want to check out now. It seems like a good time of year to check out some new stuff. There’s a new one out by Steve McQueen, a director from the UK, called Widows. Another great science fiction movie I’m looking forward to checking out called Prospect. There’s a lot of material out there to draw from.
TJG: Yeah, this is a good moment for movies.
JDA: It is, man. Even small television has ramped it up in terms of quality of scripts and whatnot. One of my dreams is to one day write a score for a movie. That would be, wow, that would be a dream. Hopefully that will happen. I’ve met a couple of young directors and have offered my services. As far as I know, it might happen, but you never know until you get the film in hand, and you’re actually sitting down trying to write something, thinking about the scene. It would be great.
TJG: When you’re checking out these ballads and thinking about these stories in your head, those are scenes too, yeah?
JDA: Absolutely. I think every album should come from a perspective of having thematic content to it, a story line through the album. I believe, at some point, that people are going to want to get back into hearing complete albums, versus just a $0.99 tune here and there, scouring Apple Music, putting together a playlist, versus listening to an artist’s complete series of work.
TJG: That’s the nice thing about scoring a film. When you’re in a movie, you can’t skip around, you can’t watch one scene and then skip to the next. You just sit there.
JDA: Exactly. You have to be involved in the storytelling process, and hopefully… I haven’t done it yet, but that’s what I think. You have to make the music match up with whatever moment is being shown. I think that’s the ultimate right there, man, to write for a movie. That would blow my mind.
TJG: I hope it happens for you soon!
JDA: I hope so too [laughs]!
TJG: So this Jazz Gallery show. What’s the plan?
JDA: I’m trying to make inroads in playing with younger musicians who are on the scene now. I’ve been back on the east coast since January, and have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of younger guys who are here now. Joining me for The Jazz Gallery will be a bassist by the name of Ian Kenselaar and a drummer by the name of Malick Koly. I like to think of it as my “young blood band.” Part of the oral tradition is playing with people who are younger than you. They learn from you, and you certainly learn from them. It’s going to be a trio. I’m basically going to work them to death on the stage of The Jazz Gallery [laughs]. Which is great for me, because The Jazz Gallery was the first place to give me a gig as a leader in New York. Coming back there now is a good feeling.
TJG: What does that mean, that you’re going to work them to death on stage? What does that look like?
JDA: Oh, I mean… [laughs]. Not literally, they’re not going to die there. There’s nothing sadistic that’s going to be going on [laughs]. We’re going to play hard. They’ve been studying my book. I think people in my generation should do more to give younger musicians chances to play, wherever that may be. I’ve done twelve recordings, and for the most part, besides the previous album, I’ve composed every song on these albums, so it’s a pretty big book to check out. I probably have over a hundred songs.
TJG: Will you just call tunes from stage, then?
JDA: I never make a setlist. Never, ever, ever. You just have to know it. That’s what I’m talking about. You have to know the songs, the vibe, that’s what I mean by working them to death. I don’t know what I’m going to call, I never know. I get there, I see how the situation feels, and I act accordingly. The job is to know where it is. And if you don’t know where it is, you’ll find out by the time we finish [laughs]. I’m kind of old school that way. We’ve played a bit together, I told them what I’m checking out, and we’ll see if they know it. We’ve gone over about twenty tunes together, and out of those, I might call any of them. Being in that situation where you don’t know what the leader’s going to call, it gets a little tough, but they’re up for the fight.
TJG: Tell me a little about how you met Ian and Malick.
JDA: I met Ian through Winard Harper, who lives in Jersey City also. A lot of young musicians are living out there now. I guess that’s the new Brooklyn, because it’s affordable. I’ve come across three or four houses full of musicians, and they’re looking for older musicians to play with, people they can cut their teeth with. Malick Kali was familiar with my trio. He basically showed up at the gigs, and said “I want to play.” He kept on me about it, I broke down, and I’m happy I did: Now, he’s on the gig with us. He wanted to do it, and I said yes [laughs]. Good old fashioned wanting-to-do-it, which you don’t see a lot of nowadays.
TJG: It sounds like you guys are going to have a lot of fun on The Jazz Gallery stage.
JDA: Oh yeah, we’re going to have a blast. I know I am [laughs].
Saxophonist JD Allen plays the Jazz Gallery on Saturday, November 17, 2018. Mr. Allen will be joined by Ian Kenselaar on bass, and Malick Coly on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.