This weekend, The Jazz Gallery brings together three leaders who push the tenor saxophone lineage in varied directions. Named for the three-headed monster king, Ghidorah features JD Allen, Stacy Dillard and Marcus Strickland, artists who have developed distinctive, resonating connections to their instrument.
In a joint interview, they spoke with The Jazz Gallery about melodic rub of the bass, sound signatures and their own long-percolating thoughts on the most damaging misnomer of all: “chordless trio.”
The Jazz Gallery: You all have ways of cuing other players on the bandstand without actually saying anything. JD, you seem to cue the other members of your band entirely with your horn, whether it’s a feel change, a tempo change or moving into a different section—repeating a phrase now and then or using a quotation. I remember on one tune you were playing what sounded like this “Witch Hunt” melody fragment. Can you talk about your instincts for cuing the other players?
JD Allen: Don Cherry was very much into that during the ’60s. If you check out Complete Communion—there’s a few great live recordings of him doing it. That’s where I got that from. And Sonny Rollins’ band in the ’60s was known to do things like that; so that in itself, that’s where that comes from. Now why I do it—the whole focus for me is to make it to the ballad, because that’s when you can sell something and people allow you to do all kinds of other crazy stuff. I’ll notice people will come up sometimes and say, “I don’t know what the hell you guys did, but that ballad—I really loved that ballad.”
Marcus Strickland: Exactly (laughs). Go head.
JDA: I get into a ballad and I try to give people kind of a moment of resting from what they heard, good or bad, and then I try to scatter that notion by going into something else, unexpected—maybe a drum solo or another tune. But yeah, I do have cues. It could be a fragment of another melody of where I wanna go to or wherever I wanna go back to, but you’re right.
Now the “Witch Hunt” reference, I love Wayne Shorter, so that’s possible. That could have happened. I’ll have to go back and investigate.
TJG: Somewhere in the middle of your second set, you went into “Solitude.”
JDA: Yeah, “Solitude.”
TJG: I remember thinking, “Wow. He really made us wait for the ballad.”
JA, MS + Stacy Dillard: [Laughs]
JDA: I can promise you a ballad. I don’t know anything else, but I do know I have a ballad in every set. Or I try to anyway. And I thought it was really appropriate because I was in my solitude. [The audience was] talking so much, and I can hear what people are saying when I play a ballad. I can hear all kinds of conversations and I feel like, in some ways, I’m a soundtrack to whatever madness is going on.
TJG: The Smalls audience is unpredictable.
JDA: Oh I love it. They can talk all they want, we’re still gonna play [laughs].
TJG: All of you guys, again, have a distinct way of interpreting melody, or maybe I should say connecting to melody. Marcus, I know from past interviews I’ve read that melody was an important consideration for you when you were putting together your most recent release on Blue Note, Nihil Novi. Whether you’re playing live or in the studio, what are some of the different ways you allow the melody to inform how you craft a solo, or improvise more broadly?
MS: That’s definitely the main thing I’m referencing when I start a solo. Your first passage through the song is probably going to be from there. I take that as a reference, and I try to expound on it. That’s where improvisation kind of stems from, embellishing on the melody. So I’m really strong on that, and all these other guys are strong on that, too.
SD: I’m kind of similar to Marcus on that, with the whole embellishing on the melody. It goes back, for me, to listening to R&B and funk and that stuff — listening to the melodies and seeing how the singers go off the melody and how they riff. It’s going to depend on how you articulate the melody when you do blow. You know how Aretha Franklin would vibe at the end of a song. They might loop or something, and she’d riff. It’s a lot like that. Keep it home, and then take off, if you want to.