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On two of his previous albums, Americana (2016) and Barracoon (2019), tenor saxophonist JD Allen purposefully evoked the blues. On Americana Vol. 2, he gets right down to the nitty-gritty, playing the blues in quartet and trio formats, stripping his tenor work to the studs, eschewing technical gymnastics in favor of raw expression. It’s not roadhouse blues or Chicago blues or jump blues, but blues refracted through a jazz prism.
Allen is not looking to have the listener lean back in awe, gobsmacked by technical virtuosity, but rather lean in to absorb and feel the music.
It works. The material, too, is blues-based — not in a strict, 12-bar format, but based on simple, repeated riffs, drones, melodic figures and simmering grooves, providing Allen and his cohorts ample room to improvise. The pieces don’t sound composed as much as extemporized.
Along with familiar bandmates Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, Allen is joined by a well-chosen fellow traveler: guitarist Charlie Hunter. He issues what may be the most overtly bluesy playing of his long and storied recording career. Which is not to say he’s channeling Buddy Guy. Hunter has his own style — spiky and shimmering, with a panoply of slurs and slides and quicksilver runs.
The opener, “Up South” — an affectionate reference to Allen’s hometown of Detroit — begins with Hunter and August performing a smoldering riff as Royston prowls his kit. The effect is evocative of walking through an urban alley or down a Mississippi dirt road at 3 a.m. The trio sits on this lick for more than three-and-half minutes, until Allen enters with a series of crying lines. The mood is firmly set.
Three consecutive trio tracks — each clocking in at about three-and-a-half minutes — occupy the middle of the record. They’re near-motionless, and you can feel undercurrents of anguish and anger in Allen’s deliberate playing, filled with long tones, which often crumble before dissolving altogether. Listening to these pieces can be unsettling, which is at least part of the point. — Eric Snider