JD Allen has spent a career honing no-frills artistic expression, fashioning a catalog that emphasizes relatively brief, thematically cohesive original compositions. So it made sense that, after being initially flummoxed and deflated by pandemic-induced isolation, he would pivot to the creation of Queen City, his first album for solo tenor saxophone.
In the liner notes, Allen writes that the purpose was to recenter his life in hope for the future. After listening to other solo sax records to help him chart his course, he composed nine new originals, each under four minutes, and bracketed them with four Depression-era tunes that have become standards. Though each of these 13 selections can stand on its own, they’re meant to resemble a mural, vignettes belonging to a bigger picture.
As always, Allen is charismatic, resonant, and decisive. He comes into “Three Little Words” sideways and low-toned like Sonny Rollins, immersed in playful discovery, retarding and rushing the tempo or starting, backtracking, then triumphantly declaring a string of interpolated phrases. He’s more faithful to the melody on the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower,” smoothing its lyricism into elegance.
The nine originals are at once restless and concise, brimming with phrases that bump and skid, then pause, as on “Gem and Eye,” or contrast oscillations and flutters with elongated notes that peal upward and downward (“Mother”) or abruptly splat (“Maude”). Queen City is named after Cincinnati, where the album was recorded, and the title song features a sturdy riff and an open-hearted spirit that makes it feel most suited to become a larger ensemble piece. A second memorable refrain anchors “O.T.R.,” which may refer to Cincinnati’s historically rich Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
The closing pair of standards seem chosen for lyrics that are of course never sung. Allen barely leans into the “I ain’t got nobody” lament of “Just a Gigolo,” and waits until the end to address the melody of “These Foolish Things,” which helps mentally complete its signature lyric, “remind me of you.” No matter. Faith in creative expression is Queen City’s abiding theme, and in Allen’s solo mural it’s readily apparent.