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Jen Allen may not be a familiar name. Her only other recording as a leader came in 2011, as she’s been engaged as an active composer and educator during the past decade. Still, it’s impressive how assured the pianist sounds on Sifting Grace, her new release, exhibiting the relaxed confidence of an established presence.
Strong melodicism and an easy swing guide these seven original tunes. And this is highly personal material, dealing with the tough work required in moving on with one’s life while dealing with grief. Perhaps that’s why the aptly titled “Begin Again” comes across as cautiously upbeat, with a bouncy rhythm underpinned by a melody that suggests an uneasy optimism.
As carefully constructed as Allen’s compositions are, the results never come across as merely tasteful. That’s thanks to the warmth of the melodies and the performances by the rest of her quartet, which features Allen’s husband, Kris Allen, on alto and soprano saxophones, bassist Marty Jaffe and drummer Kush Abadey. “Easy Peasey” begins by building on Jaffe’s three-note motif, but the harmonic palette quickly expands in unexpected directions, so that what starts out as a groove-forward piece blooms into something more contoured and complex. “Prickly Pear” is as close as the group comes to an all-out burner, and its old-school rhythmic and melodic drive is instantly infectious.
Allen’s solos are masterclasses in sly economy and dramatic development. On the title track, she wades in tentatively, gradually moving to the upper registers, suggesting a slow movement from darkness to light. And her lyrical style seems especially suited for a ballad like “Climbing Ivy.” Her chords whisper beneath Jaffe’s solo, then grow more dramatic in supporting Kris Allen’s soaring soprano turn. On this concise and cogent set, Allen demonstrates that the most direct statements are often the most effective.— John Frederick Moore
Featured photo by Lindsey Victoria.