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03/18/12

Harry Allen
Rhythm on the River
Challenge Records

Jazz at the extremities places special demands on the listener’s imagination. For jazz on the avant-garde left, an open mind is required to accept new notions of beauty. For jazz on the conservative right, curiosity is necessary to reach notions of beauty encrusted by time.

Harry Allen was born in 1966 but the music that sounds right to him comes from 30 or 40 years earlier. The opening tune here is “Riverboat Shuffle.” Hoagy Carmichael wrote it in 1924. Bix Beiderbecke played it with the Wolverine Orchestra. The frenetic Dixieland of Allen’s version celebrates an emotion no longer recognizable in terms of contemporary experience. Performances like “River, Stay ’Way From My Door” and “Rhythm on the River” also operate in a risky zone between quaint and corny.

But if music comes out of a valid aesthetic, it rewards the effort to hear it truly. The best way to understand Allen is to start with the ballads. Only a very hard heart could fail to be touched by Allen’s whispery tenor saxophone, somehow both soul baring and suave, on “Cry Me a River.” “Swanee River” is like a two-and-a-half-minute sigh, Allen and guest cornetist Warren Vaché both seductively languid.

Once you have made the adjustment, you hear the pure luster of Allen’s saxophone sound. You hear his exceptional fluency that assembles ideas into elegant wholes, for many choruses (“Roll on, Mississippi, Roll On”) or one (“Sleepy River”). He also swings, at all tempos, with presumptive, magisterial confidence. In this his agile rhythm section of pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Chuck Riggs ably supports him.

You might wonder how an album with a river theme could exclude Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece, “River.” It was composed around 1970. Too new.

Originally published in March 2012
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