Tenor saxophonist JD Allen sounds different on Grace—less muscular, more introspective. But while he’s not as aggressive as he has been over his last several albums, he’s playing with just as much confidence. After four records in a sax-bass-drums trio, he’s added a pianist—Eldar Djangirov, no less—to the group. And he’s playing a bit longer. Whereas he kept most of his performances under four minutes on his previous albums, on Grace he lets the band go for five-plus on most tracks.
This doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his theory of jazz economy. Less is still more with Allen. He’ll play two notes where other musicians would play four, and he sits out plenty in order to listen to Djangirov ruminate. But Allen has got something more than songs on his mind with Grace, and it’s spelled out in David Michael Greenberg’s meticulous liner notes: This project tells a story, in two acts, a narrative built around the human journey. But being aware of it is not essential to enjoying the music.
And the music is transcendent. Themes are implied more than stated. Structure is loose. Musicians have free rein to take liberties and go where their solos take them. Songs like “Detroit” and “Luke Sky Walker” are pleasant without conforming to traditional notions of melody. On “Pole Star,” it’s not immediately clear what Allen is doing: Is that a solo right off the bat, with no theme? Is that all? Is that the bassline, or is Dezron Douglas soloing too? Here comes Jonathan Barber’s drum solo—no, wait, the song’s over. Allen just gets going on “Papillon 1973” with a beguiling solo that begins to build tension when suddenly he stops and lets Djangirov take over. The ballad “Selah (My Refuge),” on the other hand, does have an easily discernible theme, and it invites sax-and-piano exchanges that might be the most beautiful dialogue you’ll hear all year. Song after song, Allen keeps us guessing and on our toes. One thing we do know: His deceptively complex music keeps getting more and more interesting.