If Radio Flyer by JD Allen is the tenor saxophonist’s best album yet—and it is—it’s largely because of leading-edge guitarist Liberty Ellman’s appearance. Allen has augmented the trio format before. But Ellman’s work alongside bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston is subtler and more atmospheric, adding to the music without altering the chemistry.
That chemistry tends toward sparseness, making Ellman’s deft attack that much more impressive. Allen is a player of small phrases, often (“Sitting Bull,” “Heureux”) stringing them together into longer lines. He’s also known for leaving space, and if August and Royston fill that space, they tint it rather than coloring it outright. Obviously, that’s even more true when Allen lays out for other solos: August spreads out on “Sancho Panza” and Royston is both relentless behind the bassist and careful not to step on him. And on “The Angelus Bell,” Royston, who has one of the busiest drum sounds in jazz, displays an uncanny knack for letting the silence show through his veritable carnival of cymbals.
That’s where Ellman’s light touch matters. On “Radio Flyer,” he makes a wash, a psychedelic scrim behind the interactive trio. On “Sitting Bull,” he adds some soft chord fills during the saxophone solo that melt into halting single-note lines during Ellman’s own. (Ditto his improvisation on “Daedalus.”) There are traces throughout of Ellman’s trademark distortion effects (they’re particularly effective in “Heureux”), but that’s not his focus, including on the closing “Ghost Dance,” on the first half of which Allen maintains silence. It leaves Ellman, August and Royston room for a scintillating back-and-forth that, despite some jitteriness, still lets the spaces be heard.