JD Allen, Preaching the Word through Music: Something Else! Interview

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JD Allen is emerging as one of the most innovative saxophonists of our time. His music, through a masterful use of melody reveals a personal story and an inner quest.

On his new release Grace — which features Eldar Djangirov (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass), and Jonathan Barber (drums) — JD uses melody to string together and unify all of the tracks on the album into a cohesive narrative. Each song is heard as a chapter in the story — a story that describes a life-long pilgrimage of attaining grace. It’s about overcoming struggle, oppression, the battle between good and evil, persevering, and the pursuit of truth. Not a single note or breath is wasted and often times, pierces the heart.

His music is art in its truest form: a complete vulnerable and emotional expression of the artist’s being.

In this three-part Something Else! Sitdown, JD Allen and I will explore the symbolism and metaphors in his music, fighting life’s battles, and his faith in God. JD shows the same open and genuine nature in these interviews that he has in his music. He holds nothing back and reveals what has become his inner truth …

DAVID GREENBERG: Your latest two records, Grace and The Matador and the Bull, contain deep symbolism and are rooted in story-like narratives. They communicate personal themes and narratives, and the song titles are profound metaphors. How did this concept develop in your music?
J.D. ALLEN: I try to look at myself as a painter. I have a lot of respect for artists, and people who paint. A lot of times when I go to a museum, I look at a piece of art, and then I like to read the little caption on the side — what the artist was thinking about — and that gives me a fuller understanding of what is being presented to me, and what I should look for. And fortunately enough, for a musician, a title can also be like an autobiography — a title or a chapter in the musician’s life. If people are smart enough, they will really look into that. Take Picasso for instance: Different things that were going on in his life, his work reflected that. Look at the harlequin, which happened to be in most of his paintings, or his love of bullfighting, or the blue period, or the rose period, or just different things that are metaphors for life, which gives art that much more umph to it. I think music has the same responsibilities, at least in my opinion. Bach didn’t just write about anything. He wrote about something, and that’s why his music is still prevalent and important today, and it’s in everyone’s life whether they know it or not. Coltrane wrote about something. Even Miles wrote about something. So, it makes sense to me to try to write about something, or to be influenced by something. To be a reflection of what I might think about life or what’s going on around me. It’s just that I feel like if I’m going to do this, I might as well try to become great — that I should aspire to that. I try to be a student of great art, not only music, but I like to read about it and I see things that make them great and I try to emulate that. That becomes my “lodestar” in a sense. So that’s how it came about. I think the harlequin thing was very important to me when I found out what Picasso was doing with that, and how that little figure showed up in most paintings. It kind of tied in a certain theme. So that opened my eyes to: maybe I don’t paint, but I too am in art, and maybe I should have these attributes in my art. It is conscious, it’s very conscious — especially at this point. I like when people look into it, because I think you’re supposed to look into everything — deeply. You should try to read between the lines and inform yourself. I think that’s our responsibility if we want to grow. I have my little messages in my titles, and when people get it, man, that was my job, that’s what I was supposed to do. That’s where I’m at. Some people like to party — there’s nothing wrong with partying, but all parties come to an end. Great architecture, however, lives forever. When something is put together well, with meaning, and it has sense of symbolism, it lasts forever.

DAVID GREENBERG: That’s what I love about your music– there’s deep symbolism that tells a personal story. Like Coltrane’s “Psalm” from A Love Supreme
J.D. ALLEN: I remember hearing the record Transition for the first time in college. I skipped class to hear that record, and I cried when I first heard it. I couldn’t believe that this person was able to transmit, at least in my opinion, the joy of overcoming, not only the horror, but just his personal life and things like that. Then I realized it didn’t just start with him. It started a long time ago with Bach, and the renaissance period, where people were making things that had symbolic meaning to it. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On. A lot of great work has that theme as their underlying current to it, and it lives forever. So there’s a reason for that. But, Coltrane was my first experience at hearing something had a deeper meaning to it.

DAVID GREENBERG: The underlying current that you mentioned, for you, what is that? That deep-seated current, that goes through Van Gogh, through Picasso, through Coltrane, through Bach — what is this theme that seems to last forever?
J.D. ALLEN: I’ve got to say, I don’t know if Picasso was a person who necessarily painted things about the subject of God, and you have to say that Bach worked for a church, so he was getting paid to do what he had to do. I think the underlying current is just overcoming — perseverance, for lack of a better word. It does take a special something to grasp greatness. I don’t know if it comes from even practicing every day, but that’s where the grace comes in. Where you can do all that you can do, all that you can possibly do, but then you need something to take you further, that you couldn’t do. I think that what they all have in common, the underlying greatness, is that they tapped into that and they let themselves be a vehicle for that.

DAVID GREENBERG: The song titles on Grace allude to themes such as good versus bad, which is similar to the album The Matador and the Bull. But there also seems to be a progressive journey that is outlined by the titles. For example, Act II (or Side 2) begins with “Detroit,” where you grew up, then “Cross Damon,” which seems to indicate a struggle — a falling from grace — then there seems to be a search and final attainment of something—perhaps it’s some kind of truth. So on a broader spectrum, does the album express a broader theme?
J.D. ALLEN: Yeah, there is a broad thing. Well, it’s not even broad — it’s narrow — because if it was broad, then I would probably be a millionaire. (Laughs.) The world likes worldly things — that’s what sells. I mean, sugar — not to get off the subject but this is an important question — sugar is a replacement for fruit, but most people eat more sugar than they eat fruit. I like to think of it as a way of preaching without being preachy. I had a discussion with my friend Jaimeo Brown, who is also a believer, and we got into this conversation about it. We all want to spread it, the word, but how do we do it — and I brought the fact that it’s OK if you want to spread the word, but if you look at the New Testament, all the red letters of what Jesus was supposed to say, it’s usually in parables if you notice. It’s something that you’ve got to figure out, and fortunately enough the description that he would give his apostles, he would break it down, but if you look at just what he said, it’s in a parable. And he said that “those who have ears can hear, those who have eyes can see,” so it’s not a broad thing, it’s just my attempt at trying to preach without being preachy. So that’s my take on it. I think that’s what I’m supposed to do. I told this other gentlemen that I think initially, when you try to walk the walk, you become a gospel musician, even if you’re not playing so-called gospel, but the gospel is to spread the word and the good news, and I try to do that — I really try. I think this is what I’m supposed to do, so whenever I get an opportunity such as this, I can talk about it. So, it’s not broad; it’s my attempt at preaching without being preachy.

DAVID GREENBERG: You just mentioned spreading the word. Do you have a sentence or two, or a phrase that could culminate what it is?
J.D. ALLEN: So, now I’ve got to open it up right? (Laughs.)

DAVID GREENBERG: I don’t have to include it in the interview, if you don’t want.
J.D. ALLEN: Go ahead and totally include it. Because you know, I will say this: What I have learned is that when you do these things, which I’m going to do — and I hope you put this in it also; you could put everything in, I’m not ashamed — but I have to prepare myself for the accusations like: “You say this and you profess this, but when I look at you, you’re this.” Once again, I just got hip to grace, it came to my being of what it was. I had heard it for years, but I realized what was happening, it wasn’t about me. So, the word meaning, and I will say this, that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and he died and came back after three days, and that’s the good news — that’s what it is. And, if he could love a person like me and all of my flaws and imperfections, then I know he’s happening. And that’s what I feel. Maybe it’s not about the record, or me playing a great solo. Maybe it’s really about this right here, this opportunity to say that, because I will be judged by this. There will be people saying” “Well, I know him to be this way, and I know him to be this way.”
There’s three parts to a person. There’s spirit, there’s soul, and there’s body. My spirit professes this, my soul is what I’ve got to work on to get it to agree with the spirit — and the body has to agree with the spirit, and the soul also has to agree with the spirit. So, that’s my opportunity. And I profess that Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior, and I hope people get a chance to learn that. If I have anything to do that’s important, it’s far more important than the record Grace, or any of those records; it’s just an opportunity to get to this. That’s where I’m at. But, like I said, the titles are just for people — to see if they can link it up to the music. And if the music draws it in, then that’s good, that’s what it’s about it.
So, that’s it man. You can totally put that in there; that’s cool.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: JD Allen’s 2012 release ‘The Matador and the Bull’ showed once again that he has a lot to say – and that he isn’t afraid to shake things up.]

DAVID GREENBERG: There’s nothing deeper we can go than that …
J.D. ALLEN: Well, it’s almost not even deep, because it’s for free. Think about it, it’s like this — and I’m going to say this: I’ve got a guy who comes over and I give him lessons for free. And, he doesn’t take advantage of it, because I guess it’s for free. Sometimes when you give it away, they can’t believe it. They don’t want to believe. They think that it has to cost something, or it’s something that you’ve got to do to attain it, and I guess that kind of possession makes people not accept it — but it’s totally for free. I have every right to say that, even though if I did something bad or wrong. I have the right to do that, because the true martyr did it once, for me to do that, and I can so long as I believe that, then I’m cool, no matter what happens — and it’s taken me a long time to accept that myself. And with that, comes the accusations like: “How dare you, I know you to be like this,” but I’ve got to accept that too and learn how to deal with that. But I will not be afraid; I will not be afraid to say that in public, with so many other things going on. This is free, you can have it, anyone can have it. So, in fact, it’s not even that deep. There isn’t anything we’ve got to do but just believe, and that in itself is hard. Like you mentioned Van Gogh, who only sold one painting in his whole life. What was he thinking about? What was his belief? When I read about him, they try to attribute it to him having some type of disease as the reason why he was painting like that. But it’s beyond that; you can’t explain it. So, fortunately in today’s age, we have these types of things where we can talk about what we really mean, and I hope people take the opportunity to give us the insight into why they make the work that they do.

DAVID GREENBERG: When exactly was it when you fully accepted Jesus Christ?
J.D. ALLEN: It was introduced to me by an aunt of mine, her name was Monica Ross, and when I came to live with my grandparents, that’s when I was exposed to it. I went with her just to please her. She would literally grab my like this to go to church and I went — and, it frightened me. I was placed in some situations where I had no choice, where it was it was kind of like, either this or this is it. Fortunately enough, his hand was already extended to me and all I had to do was just reach out and grab it. I think I totally accepted him in earnest, maybe eight years ago. I’ve lost my way, like everybody else. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of, but I’ve had to learn how to forgive — and I hope that I’m forgiven for other people’s sake and that I’m forgiven for my sake. But I accepted him in earnest maybe eight years ago, around I Am I Am. That’s when I kind of woke up. You want to tell everybody when you first get it — you want to tell everybody about it! “Wow, man, I just got hip to this thing that’s been around for thousands of years,” and then your friends look at you like you’ve lost your mind. So around I Am I Am, that’s when I woke up, and I realized that there’s a reason for things — there are. I was pushed to the brink for so many times with that, that was the only thing I can do, David. That was it. Like I said, I wanted to live! I wanted to live and I accepted that, and now I am alive. Through the good and the bad, because it doesn’t change anything; you still have your problems. Some people think like, Presto! They’re cool.

DAVID GREENBERG: Like all of life’s problems will suddenly go away …
J.D. ALLEN: Like, that’s it, you did that part, and now you’ve got to go through this world. But now you’re equipped with a tool, to fight, to really fight, some levels that people can’t even see. When he says “we fight against principalities, not flesh and blood” — some deeper things. But you’re equipped with the tools, which is reading the word, which is alive. You can deal. Even when you get down, you can say the scriptures to yourself, and then, it probably makes more sense because you’re dealing with something and you need it more, and it’s easier because you need that to be fed to you.

DAVID GREENBERG: Nearly 15 years ago, you released your debut album entitled In Search Of. After all of these years, I’m wondering, both musically and personally, did you find what you were looking for, or are you still searching for it?
J.D. ALLEN: I found it. And once again, it is Jesus Christ. But practicing it, living it, living what I read, that’s something I haven’t … (he pauses here) … found. I see what it is, but to actually put it into practice, completely, it might take a lifetime — it might take a lifetime. And that’s fine. But at least I see it, I can read it, I can experience it, I can know what it is — and that is true, but to get to that point, that’s the journey. It’s like once you learn something, then you realize you don’t know, and then you have to learn what you don’t know. Then you learn that and realize: “Oh, I need to learn more.” (Laughs.) It’s going to be an endless journey, and I accept that. All of the pitfalls and highs that come with that — I accept it now. I know what it is, what I have to do, but doing it is the quest. Living it, being it, for real, is the quest. And it doesn’t mean doing all of the religious or churchy things — it doesn’t mean that. It means just those two rules: Love God with all the heart and mind, and love thy neighbor as I love thyself. If I can get that done, I’m good — I’m cool in the game. It’s a journey, man. And, I’m starting to realize this: There’s no difference between me and my music. Even if I were to become a writer, it would be the same song, but I’d just be a writer — or if I were an actor, or if I were a painter. In fact, it’s not even about music; it’s just that thing that we all have and whatever direction we decide to take, that’s what that same vehicle is. I’ve learned that and I accept it — that I am what I play. And in order to play better, I better be a better person. That’s exactly what it is, for me. So yeah, I’m still in search of. At 24, I was just in search for some more groceries, in search of a great companion, in search of success, in search of playing better. All the stuff that you want at 24, that you feel like when you turn 30, if you don’t achieve it, you might as well jump off a bridge. But now it’s more solidified and more mature, I think. If I do it right, which I hope, if God blesses me, I’m going to have a better life in a lot of regards — inside here. And so, it’s a journey — I’m still searching.

PART II: Fightin’ to the Edge of the Grave
PART III: Exploring the Symbolism in Grace

David Greenberg

David Greenberg

David Greenberg is a PhD researcher in music psychology at the University of Cambridge in England.He also plays saxophone in various groups including the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra. Follow him on Twitter: @dgreenberg7. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
David Greenberg
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