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There’s an appealing purity to JD Allen’s approach. From his big, luxurious tone on tenor saxophone, to the patient clarity of his solos, to the nimble interplay of his pianoless trio, there’s an undeniable comfort in its familiarity. But as this concise and compelling set demonstrates, his music also yields its own pleasant surprises. That much is clear right off the bat with his take on “You’re My Thrill,” a ballad largely associated with Billie Holiday. Allen attacks the melody, then develops his solo with phrases that gradually rise in intensity. With bassist Ian Kenselaar’s burbling lines and drummer Nic Cacioppo’s rolling polyrhythms, it’s a performance that emanates heat with a slight sense of unease.
The trio pulls off a balance of relaxed intimacy and intense focus, driven by Allen’s relentless melodicism, as well as Kenselaar and Cacioppo’s knack for rhythmic flexibility. But there's also plenty of subtle variety in the execution. On “The G Thing,” the trio takes a more relaxed approach, with Allen’s sinewy, economical phrases carried along Kenselaar’s walking bass lines. A New Orleans-style bounce propels “Die Dreaming,” while the rhythm section takes an airy, abstract approach on “Toys” (though Allen’s lyricism helps to keep things grounded). And, as Allen’s solo grows ever more probing on Peter Lin’s slinky blues “Red Label,” it’s hard not to be reminded of John Coltrane. Then again, just about every phrase Allen utters is drenched in the blues. It’s why listening to this album — like much of his work over the years — is such a soulful experience. The final tune is a sprightly piece called “Elegua (The Trickster).” Allen’s particular trick is to extract the most profound statements from what seem like the simplest of premises. —John Frederick Moore