JD Allen, Exploring the Symbolism in Grace: Something Else! Interview

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In this final segment of a three-part Something Else! Sitdown with JD Allen, David Greenberg explores the saxophonist’s terrific new release, the dying concept of expressing emotion in song, and Allen’s need to keep progressing

DAVID GREENBERG: What intrigues me most about your playing is that the line between your life and your music is very blurred. Let’s talk a bit about the things in your own life that influenced the (2013) album Grace. You’ve mentioned that musicians can use titles to be autobiographical. On Grace, you have titles such as “Cross Damon,” “Luke Sky Walker,” “Pole Star,” “Lode Star” and the “Little Dipper.” How do some of those resonate within your life. Do they reflect who you are as a person?
J.D. ALLEN: Fortunately enough, a friend of mine had suggested that I read a book called The Outsider, by Richard Wright. It took me a couple of years to get to it, but when I did, I was so happy man, because of the character of the book, Cross Daman — which as you know, is in itself is a paradox. Basically, in my crude attempt to come up with a synopsis for it, he basically got rid of his identity due to the fact that he was in an accident. He became this whole other person, and at times, he took on different characteristics of what was expected of him to achieve what he wanted. And I kind of dug that. But he was only beholding to himself; he didn’t align himself with Communism; he didn’t align himself with the NAACP, the black civil rights movement; he didn’t align himself with anything — he was just to himself. He was his own country. But unfortunately, at the end of the book he dies, but I kind of relate to that. I like to feel that the world is my neighborhood and that all cultures are my culture. Some people don’t want to believe that, but for myself, I would like achieve that and I think I do relate to Cross Damon quite a bit. Luke Skywalker on the other hand, just from what I remember from the movie, his childlike wanting to leave home and to explore, and then to find out that you can only go so far by doing things yourself. Once again, you’re either going to accept one of two things — good or bad — and if you do accept the good, you have to totally accept it, and if you do accept the bad, you have to totally accept it. But whatever it is, you have to have a belief in that and let that take you farther than where you can take yourself. It’s kind of a paradox — both halves of the record, kind of similar to Matador and the Bull. With the “Cross Damon” side, the Act II side, I tried to play against the band, while the band was more steady. I tried to be a nonconformist, playing the changes, but playing the rhythm, or playing against it, but still playing the song. The Act I side was all about exploration and trying to manipulate form, and not so much caring about a downbeat or structure: It was just more about exploring. It’s another battle we all have.

DAVID GREENBERG: How about the symbolism of the tune “Chagall”? Often, Marc Chagall had themes of flight and angels in his paintings. I’m curious what brought you onto him?
J.D. ALLEN: Well, actually, the funny thing is that the first time I saw his work was in a children’s book. I saw it years ago and really thought it was hip, but I didn’t know who he was, so I looked at it in another way. Later on, I went into a museum and I saw his work, and I said: “Whoa, I remember that.” I remembered the colors and I knew who he was right away. I’ve just started reading up on him and trying to understand why he did what he did. His love of community and his love of God. So, it was fascinating to me and then I felt like I wanted to identify with him. I tried to make it (the song) seem colorful and childlike but complex at the same time. The piano going first was my attempt at my other worldly chords, and then the drums come in, attempting to lock up with the piano player — but just a little bit off. And then I was free to play on top of that whenever I wanted. Then I had the drummer shift the meter to give the illusion of movement when there really wasn’t any movement — it was like smoke and mirrors — but I was trying to achieve what he (Chagall) was doing in his paintings. And actually, that tune “Chagall” was what I wanted the whole album to sound like, but I was only able to nail it on that one tune. In my mind, that’s what the whole record was going to be like — this dream thing. So he’s one of my guys, one of my inspirations — along with Picasso and Dali.

DAVID GREENBERG: You had told me that the song “Selah (my refuge)” was a lyric to Psalms 91, Verse 2. I had never read Psalms before, but I went back and read that passage while listening to “Selah” and it was amazing how the music helped me to really understand that passage on a deeper level.
J.D. ALLEN: I hope so; I really hope so. There’s a responsibility, I guess, with saying what you are. When people really understand it then, I think they’ll see that as more than even our physical self. But, thank you for taking the time to listen to it and listen to it with that. That inspires me to keep going. Even if there is one person that can catch it, then I’m doing the right thing — I feel that. So I appreciate you telling me that. That’s deep.

DAVID GREENBERG: I think that this concept of reflecting on certain lyrics and ideas is incredibly important, particularly in today’s music scene. I recently wrote an article on Gary Bartz’s statement that jazz education today has it backwards, because it seems that conservatories don’t make teaching emotional expressivity or the concept of deep musical reflection a priority. If a student asked you to teach them how to reflect on lyrics, passages and ideas, in the way that you do — how would you instruct them to do so?
J.D. ALLEN: I was given that opportunity recently. A year ago, I had an artist in residence at Cornish College of Arts in Seattle. And the first day of class I told all of the students: “I want you to play whatever you want to play.” They said: “What do you mean?” I said: “Well, I just want you to blow. You don’t have to play a song. I just want to hear what comes out — I want to hear the real you.” I had some students quit the class because of that one day.

DAVID GREENBERG: You’re kidding.
J.D. ALLEN: Yeah, it was so weak. If someone gave me the opportunity to scream at 16 years old, or 17 years old, without any judgment or retribution — I would have reveled in that. And fortunately someone did that for me. They told me to play what you feel, as cliché and corny as that is. Well, what that does is, it makes you search inside of yourself — and I think, in my opinion, it kind of brings you back to like a childlike state, where there was no right or wrong. It was just investigating and getting in touch with who you are, without the use of a tool such as language. When I meet someone like that, I like to just hear what they play, without any forms or anything. I want to hear them be creative, and that’s a problem today, because the emotional aspect of the music is probably far more important than the technical aspect. The technique is supposed to allow you the opportunity to express yourself in many different things, but emotion is first — we feel first. When a baby is born, the first thing that they learn how to do is cry. Now, a cry can mean a lot of different things for that baby. When a baby cries, it means they are either wet, hungry or tired. That’s the only language that they know — to cry. And you have to decipher what that is, so you go through your checklist. Well, that’s how it is in music, when you start out to play: You have a tool and you have to learn how to communicate that tool. And then the technique comes, when that child learns different things. He learns how to walk, what hot is, and eventually how to go to the bathroom. He learns different things that he or she picks up along the way. This is the same thing with music. You learn scales; you learn how to express major; and after a while, you realize that major usually means happy, and minor usually means sad — unless you’re Ornette Coleman who can make major sad, which is a whole other ballgame and which takes a lifetime to get into. I think being in touch with self, at whatever level or point of life you are at, is important. It’s the first and foremost thing — that’s the way I was taught. When I picked up the horn, I knew one scale, but I knew how to be angry. Yeah, I knew how to be angry: I knew how to be mad. And when my teacher told me to play how I feel, I had finally found something that I could do and not be judged on. I had this that I could express myself through. Now, my job was to learn how to express myself in subtleties and different ways, and that’s where the technical aspect is. If every school taught that, they would be out of business. There’s no money in that — trying to figure out who you are. There’s money in having a system and saying that, you have to learn these certain things, and then you graduate and get a diploma. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if they came from the aspect of a folk art, and learned it — and maybe my generation was the last to learn it like that — then schools would be out of business. If you have a business, you have to make money, and the school has to make the music program almost like an application that you put on your phone: You download this application and you’re able to do this. So, it’s understandable. And then a lot of times, people say a lot of the musicians sound alike because they’re all learning the same things for the same reasons.

DAVID GREENBERG: What are your plans for your next album?
J.D. ALLEN: I’ll probably record it in February, and I’m actually working on it now. After doing this, I know exactly what I should do now — a harmony thing and how I want to use it. I know the guys that I have doing it now are going to be on the next one. It’ll probably be a little bit more together, because we recorded the record like 50 times in a row. We tried it like this and we tried it like that — literally 50 times in a row through the whole record. I don’t like to do takes, I like to just play like a gig. Then I go back and usually just pull from here or pull from there. I have a clear idea of what has to be done now and how to do it. A friend of mine wrote this book where different systems go against each other. I’m going to use part of what he talks about, and I’m going to use the tone roll thing, and then some other things. I’m learning about 20th century harmony, and I’m going to use that and make it work. I do want to mention, I don’t know how they feel about this, but the next one I’m just going to produce seven tunes — I know that, I know it’s seven. It’s going to be based around that. I also wouldn’t mind also doing a standards record or a ballad record; that’s in the works. And I’m juggling with that one. I don’t think I would necessarily play the melodies at the start, maybe I’d play the melodies at the end of the song or just play the melody of the bridge.

[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: I’m remembering that ballad on The Matador and the Bull, called “Santa Maria” …
J.D. ALLEN: I can never really play that one again because that was totally improvised. We picked a key and just went with it, and it was actually kind of the basis for this record. The thing about it was, Gregg (August) had to keep a consistent pulse and Rudy (Royston) had the option of changing that. Sometimes the quarter note would get one beat, and depending on what Rudy was playing, that quarter note could turn into a half note or turn into an eighth note. But Rudy was in control of how it felt. My job was to play very melodic, as if it were something that I wrote down. So everybody had their roles of what they had to do. And when it worked, it scared the hell out of me. (Laughs.) I was like: “We don’t even need any music man, we just need to blow,” and that’s scary because then that means that I don’t have to try — and I didn’t like that. Now I’m learning how to play with some new guys, and it’s a good thing. They’re all younger than me, so I’m learning things from them.

DAVID GREENBERG: Do you miss playing with Gregg and Rudy?
J.D. ALLEN: Yeah, definitely. It was a cool partnership because live wise, it was some of the best ensemble playing I’ve ever been a part of — because on any particular night, it all was about who got the ball. If it was Rudy, it was all about Rudy; if it was me, it was all about me; if it was something Gregg was doing, it was all about Gregg. It was kind of like the Chicago Bulls when they had Michael Jordan and that triangular thing.

DAVID GREENBERG: The triangle offense?
J.D. ALLEN: Yeah, it was that, totally. It wasn’t about me having a killer solo, it was about who was on that night and whoever was on, we were supporting them. It was beautiful; it was ensemble playing — the best ensemble playing I’ve ever been involved in. It was really teamwork. And we talked about a lot of stuff and about how to do it. Now, with the piano player in the mix and me playing in this situation, I have to figure out how I want the piano and how to open this up. Is it a rectangle, is it a square? He (Eldar Djangirov) has the capability of doing a lot of things. I told him on this recording: “You know, man, all I need from you is to shape where it’s going. I don’t need you to take it anywhere, I just need you to give it a form,” and he understood that and he did that. I showed him where to comp at the piano that was comfortable for me. And he knew when to lay out, when to come in, when to let the situation turn into a trio, and when to throw it in — and that’s why he’s a great partner for me. He can do so many things. He can play a lot or he can play very little, and that’s the type of piano player I need. Stagnation is death. The only way people grow is to move. So it had to be done, but we (the trio) might do another record together. I’m sure in the future we’ll do something, but right now it’s all about the quartet.

DAVID GREENBERG: I really enjoyed the voice of the piano on Grace. It added color in a different way than with the trio.
J.D. ALLEN: The thing about the piano, and why I was so hesitant of using it, was when I play — it’s like I’ve heard the C7 chord so many times and we’ve only got 12 notes, and when piano pops into the mix, it kind of takes away some of the mystery. A lot of the tunes that I’ve played with trio are all very simple, but if we’ve had a piano player, it would have took away some of the mystery in it. So I have to come up with a type of a harmony that I want. I dig Olivier Messiaen; I like that type of classical piano sound: C7, Alt7, b9, or this over that, is not going to cut it for me at this point. That’s cool for other people’s work, but for me, I want to get to that 20th Century harmony, the classical harmony — I’m interested in that. I even wrote Branford (Marsalis) an email about sending me some music to check out, and asked him what these cats were doing on these records, because I want to get into this. He just said: “Look man, stop trying to quantify everything.” He said: “That’s the problem; don’t try to like figure it out”; he said: “Man, just live it. Just live it, man. Just jump in there and try it.” It’s all about doing it, and when you do it, the next time around you can do it better. I’m looking forward to the next time around — if they’ll have me the next time.

PART I: Preaching the Word Through Music
PART II: Fightin’ to the Edge of the Grave

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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