The Matador and the Bull is JD Allen’s fourth straight tenor trio album with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. That may be a record. For most tenor saxophonists, the trio is an obligatory, occasional challenge. For Allen it is an orchestra.
He is his own man in other ways, too. With many tenor players, the generation of ideas becomes a self-perpetuating, extravagant flow. Allen is notable for his concision. Only two tracks here are over four minutes.
This album has a unifying theme, the corrida. Bullfighting and jazz have long shared spiritual ground. Allen’s tunes have titles like “A Suit of Lights” and “Muleta,” but their relationships to bullfighting are rarely explicit. Spanish resonances are distant. For Allen, the corrida is a metaphor for entering the arena of life and doing battle.
Allen’s m.o. is consistent from the opening title track. He enters and traces a specific, yearning, song-like figure, then releases it into paraphrase, then abandons it in fast runs, then returns to a piece of the theme. In and out in 2:52. “The Lyrics of Summer and Shadow” is a graceful arc of melody, repeated with minimal variation, complete emotional clarification in 3:21.
Allen’s solos first command attention by his classic, clarion tenor saxophone sound. For all their brevity, his offerings are rich in content and never sound rushed. His trio concept requires special collaborators. August and Royston each conduct free creative operations. They continuously, personally illuminate this music. The risk of Allen’s austere format is that his rapid succession of original little hooks, even as they connect to varied experiences of the corrida, are too similar in sonic texture. But the level of discourse in this trio is so high that the listener is kept curious, anxious for the next epiphany.