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.
TJG: Since we’re talking about singers, over the years Marcus, I’ve heard you with singers in different contexts. Jean Baylor is on your most recent recording and I’ve heard you guys playing together live. Would you talk about playing with singers and comping for singers on your horn?
MS: There’s a whole lot of fluidity and soul to the way a singer phrases the melody. That’s what we’re going for on the horn anyway, so it’s always a treat to play with them. And also, I would say to the young players who are starting learn how to do that, to not become a parrot.
JDA + SD: [Laughs]
MS: Regurgitating exactly what the singer did, in the cracks, that’s like number-one no-no.
JA: They hate that.
MS: But rather, do something complementary, and also try to hear the way that they’re hearing. Really listen to the way that they’re shaping the melody—the phrasing is everything. So just open your ears to them as much as they’re open to the drummer and pianist and bassist. Hopefully they’re doing that, too.
TJG: Okay some of these are out of order.
JDA: That’s cool. I’m definitely an out-of-order cat.
TJG: Speaking of phrasing, Stacy, your connection to time is distinctive. The rhythmic development of these spontaneous compositions you create on the bandstand is just as compelling as whatever you’re doing harmonically from one moment to the next. What are you looking for in a bass player and drummer when you’re putting a band together?
SD: I’m looking for them to be looking for each other. That’s gotta happen. Especially in a trio setting—which you’ve probably heard me play the majority of the time when I’m [downtown]—everybody’s gotta know the music. In and out. It’s actually quite simple. Camaraderie helps a lot. That’s very important to me. I can’t hit with you if I can’t vibe with you. I will, because business is business sometimes, but if I got a choice, nah man. Those are the things. The fact that it’s a trio—we’re still like an orchestra. Everybody’s got added responsibility. That doesn’t necessarily mean play more or play louder or play faster. We don’t wanna sound like a quartet or a quintet. You wanna sound like what you are, but still be full with it.
TJG: JD, what’s the most rewarding challenge of playing with a “chordless” trio?
JDA: I don’t mean to step on anybody’s term, but we’re using European harmony; can you tell me some chordless harmony in European classical music? There’s still chords happening. One, five, seven — those are odd numbers, and then the even numbers will give you the clusters. You know why I say that—playing without a piano is no longer a novelty. When people see chordless or piano-less, there’s the assumption it’s associated with not being schooled or knowledgeable of what’s going on.
JDA: Yeah. I didn’t go to jazz school. Everything from jazz school—at least from the younger people I’m working with or coming in contact with—is really a chord scale-based type music. Anybody can get up there—if anything it’s more about space or an absence of space. That’s a whole other thing, because if you think “chordless,” then you won’t address the chords: “Oh, there’s no chords, so I’m not gonna address it.” When I met Ornette Coleman, he had chords. He was talking about changes. Anytime I hear that, it’s like a thorn in me. Piano-less or guitar-less—but chordless is just not [accurate]. I know I’m cracking Stacy up here. I finally got it in!
I think a lot of people when they play in that situation, they think that. That’s what it sounds like — they think they’re playing chordless.
JA: If you have a chord that has upper extensions on the piano in saxophone trio, who cares? I mean, so what? You got no piano player there, so you can do all the flat 13ths that you want, won’t make no damn sense.
SD: Alright let me say something because I gotta get back to this rehearsal.
TJG: Okay we can dismiss Stacy officially after this question.
SD: No, I don’t wanna leave! We just gotta keep it moving.
MS: The one thing I’ll say about the piano-less trio is it definitely leaves a lot of space, and it also uncovers so much more beauty out of the melody and the bass underneath the melody — how that rubs against each other to make a sound together—all that stuff becomes much more beautiful, in my opinion. Like, hearing Sonny Rollins play—hearing how you can have a countermelody in the bass and melody in the sax, hearing how that rubs together and then having Max Roach encasing all that with basically Africa—the sounds of Africa—it’s just a much more naked sound, if you don’t have the piano covering all that stuff up. So it really makes that more prominent, the voice of the saxophone and how it’s supported by the bass.
SD: Can I add something?
SD: Now all you piano players and guitar players out there, don’t get mad when I say this. But the thing about trio playing is, you got a whole lot more harmonic and rhythmic freedom, as well as the melodic freedom, when it comes to making a terrain. A lot of people get mad at a loud drummer, or this that and the other playing too much stuff. But I have more problems when somebody’s comping and not listening. I have more problems with a “chord player” comping and not listening because they’re just chonking away at the chords like it’s a play-along and they’re not listening to what’s going on. That’s a whole lot of clutter. I might have an idea—I might be thinking, I’ll drop this accidental right there, bam! But you ain’t listening. But the thing about trio is, as I said, it gives you a whole lot of rhythmic and harmonic freedom. Like the brother said earlier, it is chords in here now. Don’t sleep.
JDA: I have to say, this is great to be a part of—I don’t wanna say “project” because I don’t believe in that word either.
JDA: This “crew.” I’m hearing their take on things, and I’m learning. It’s important that you continue to learn, and see how your comrades do things. It helps you get to things you need to get to. We all got things we need to get together, and it’s great to be around two great saxophonists, just to hear them conversing about this. My take on the trio thing is: When you hear people ride down the street with the latest thing that’s on the radio, I never hear piano. I never say, “Man, those chords are nice!”
SD: Not anymore.
JDA: And I’m probably the oldest out of the whole crew. When I was coming up in Detroit and you would hear cats riding on the street, you’d only hear the bass and drums.
JA: They’d say, “Man I like that beat,” or “Man, that bass!” But it was never like, “Man—those changes!”
JDA: How I like to think about it is: Bass, drums and saxophone is the closest thing to Urban America—what’s going on now. It’s like a link to hip hop and, well I can’t say “mainstream radio” because it’s kind of trash music. I know I do listen to it [laughs]. It’s our link to what’s going on. We all basically share the same American clave which is 2 and 4. With the bass and drums—as far as I’m concerned—when I’m playing, I’m doing the same thing that a hip hop artist would do. My emphasis, at least in my opinion, is on the bass and drums. That’s the connection to Urban America.
MS: Right on.
JA: It’s in defiance of—well I’m anti composition. I don’t believe in big compositions. Lupe Fiasco did that for me with the Food & Liquor record. I noticed he was able to get things done in two or three minutes, max. So I don’t need a composition that’s got 10 pages. I just need a good hook. So bass and drums allows me to move very light, and get right to the point. So just to let you guys know, I’m probably bringing in like 3-bar tunes.
SD + MS: [laugh]
MS: Love it.
JDA: I try to write stuff that sounds a little bit different every time. We just went into the studio and recorded another record, and my drummer asked me, “Is it going to be the same?” I said, “Man don’t even ask me that.” It’s going to be however I feel at the time. Everything is so composition based, which is great. But I’m more of the Sam Rivers mentality where it’s spontaneous compositions—just vehicles where it can get you to a point, to help guide you into a direction. I’m not a songwriter. I’m a vibe writer. [Laughs] that’s my MO. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is the greatest song ever written, and that’s just 8 bars—and it’s still valid.
JDA: And I attribute that to the hip hop music that I’ve listened to, and do listen to. Those hooks are not long compositions. They allow people to come in and link up to the vibe. That’s kind of how I view writing. Even running my set, it’s all about: We got five ideas we can just juggle around and bring back in whenever we want.
So young people, listen to Marcus Strickland, because he’ll guide you in the right way.
JDA: You wanna make some money, listen to Marcus.
SD + MS: [Laugh]
JDA: Marcus is the man. I never did an interview with these other guys, but this is a lot of fun.
TJG: Okay well Stacy does have to get back to a rehearsal so I have to wrap up the interview, and I wanna pose a final question to all of you, starting with Marcus: What’s most misunderstood about the tenor legacy and lineage?
MS: Hm. That’s a good question. I don’t really see it as a misunderstood thing because all the representation is pretty accurate. Whenever somebody shows an image of somebody playing the tenor saxophone, it’s usually Coltrane or Sonny Rollins—somebody like that. So I don’t think people are misinterpreting it. I would like to see, in big band writing, somebody give a solo to another instrument for once. That would be good.
SD: Well from that question, what I get—I don’t wanna pinpoint it to the tenor legacy, so to speak, but more so to the individual—to the musician—the way that you’re going about your music and changing over time. It ain’t just tenor players. Think about this question right quick: “What school did you go to?” Think about that question. Now think back to Louis Armstrong. Duke Ellington. All them cats. Nobody was asking them what school they went to. And the way we’re learning the way people are being taught in the schools now—is the equivalent of, let’s say you get dressed to go out at night. Bout to go kick it, right? But you’re in the mirror getting ready, and you’re rehearsing what you’re gonna say to chicks when you pick them up.
MS + JA: [Laugh]
SD: No. No, but a lot of the music is presented that way. A lot of players got the “improv” already ready. And that’s when it suffers. That’s why you hear a lot of people sounding alike. I know I do. If no one else will say it, I’ll say it. Motherfuckers out here sounding just alike because they looking at the same pick-up lines. And it ain’t gonna fall like that. You gotta be able to talk to whoever you talk to when you talk. And it ain’t just a tenor thing. It’s for every instrument, really.
JDA: This speaks to this particular band: Without having played one note yet, I know we’re a crew just by this conversation.
JDA: When a person comes to see us, they’re going to hear three different points, just in terms of sound—of tone—about how the tenor saxophone can sound. And to kind of link onto what Stacy’s talking about, I think the biggest misrepresentation of the tenor saxophone is that you can’t have individual tones. You can. That’s really your signature—your sound—especially when you play the tenor saxophone.
JDA: Sonny Rollins sounded entirely different from John Coltrane in terms of phrasing and tone. Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young: different ways of phrasing, different tones. Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon—it’s kind of like Moses and Jesus or Moses and Aaron. It’s for the same cause; it’s just a different way. And when you come to see us, you’re going to hear three different ways, just in how to present sound alone.
SD: Yeah, you’re going to hear three people who ain’t practicing they pickup lines in the mirror.
JDA: And I think our generation is the last of that school of, “Hey, you gotta find your sound.” And your sound is your voice. That’s who you are. And you can’t get that from a mouthpiece. That comes from listening.
Ghidorah plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday January 31 and Saturday February 1, 2020. The band features Mr. Allen, Mr. Dillard and Mr. Strickland on tenor saxophone, Eric Wheeler on bass and Rodney Green on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $30 general admission ($15 for members), $40 reserved table seating ($25 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.