I Am I Am
Given the title of JD Allen Trio’s impressive Sunnyside debut, perhaps stylistic parallels are beside the point. Suffice it to say that this release occasionally will bring to mind John Coltrane, an unmistakable influence on Allen, as well as pianoless trio sessions recorded by everyone from Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson (circa “The State of the Tenor,” Vols. 1 and 2) to Branford Marsalis and Joe Lovano.
Two things set I Am I Am apart: The group dynamics, often distinguished by contrapuntal interplay, and the compositions, all 10 of which were written by Allen. Accompanying the tenor saxophonist are Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, who prove their mettle early on, first by shading and orchestrating the album’s opening title track, a Coltrane-like incantation, then by combining kinetic energy with a swift swing pulse on “The North Star.” Allen, who cut his teeth with Betty Carter and continues to tour with Cindy Blackman, has no difficultly holding the listener’s attention or compensating for the absence of a keyboardist. In addition to commanding a full-throated tone and displaying plenty of harmonic assurance, he proves particularly adept at cranking up thematic tension, as “Ezekiel” illustrates, and at helping stoke the band’s rhythmic fires on “Pagan” and other cuts.
A spiritual current that often evokes Coltrane runs throughout I Am I Am, but the arrangements are focused, the melodies appealing. In the end, Allen addresses a challenging trio tradition in his own distinctive fashion.