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JD Allen and Sonny Rollins embraced the art of the solo saxophone for different reasons. In the late 1950s, Rollins stepped out of the spotlight after skyrocketing to jazz fame to focus on lifting his music to an even higher level — a goal he sought while playing alone at night on the Williamsburg Bridge. Allen, for his part, found himself unable to safely perform in public settings or with peers because of COVID-19, so he decided to create a musical universe using just his tenor sax.
Queen City is the result of this experiment. And while it’s extraordinarily difficult not to think of Rollins — who’s among Allen’s key influences — when listening to these 13 tracks, the experience is still immensely pleasurable. Allen’s deep knowledge of classic jazz, and the facility with which he plumbs its depths, help turn the recording into a metaphor about surviving and thriving in an age of isolation.
Allen didn’t simply capture random improvisations and declare them songs. He frames the album with separate pairs of covers but freely interprets their familiar melodies. His take on “Three Little Words” — a 1930 number popularized by the Rhythm Boys, featuring a pre-superstar Bing Crosby — is bold and boisterous, while his version of “Wildwood Flower,” a 19th-century folk staple subsequently associated with the Carter Family, is yearning and pensive. Later, he struts through the saucy “Just a Gigolo,” cut by everyone from Louis Prima to David Lee Roth, and caresses the beloved standard “These Foolish Things.”
The range is just as wide on Allen’s own compositions. He shakes up the romantic mood of “Maude” with occasional blats and splats, shows off his fluidity on “Retrograde,” demonstrates his awesome technical facility on the multi-faceted “Mother” and turns “Nyla’s Sky” into a landscape of melancholia. A little alone time can be rewarding. Just ask Rollins. — Michael Roberts
Featured photo: Anna Yatskevich