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You’ve heard of the sophomore jinx: the idea that an artist’s first album scoops up all their best songs, leaving the cupboard kinda bare for the follow-up. Kris Allen’s debut recorded in 2011, Circle House, had its considerable pleasures, not least a heavily syncopated “Star Eyes,” one of only two non-originals. But the sequel Beloved for a tight two horns/two rhythm quartet is a leap forward, not least because of some very lively tunes. Lack of material is clearly not a problem.
Kris Allen: “I’ve written a lot more pieces than have been recorded, and a few here—‘One for Rory,’ ‘Lord Help My Unbelief’ and ‘More Yeah’—are maybe a decade old. Only ‘Mandy Have Mercy’ and ‘Hate the Game’ were 100-percent written for this project. I’d always heard ‘Beloved’ as a solo piano piece, so to do it with this group was a challenge. Some of the older compositions I’d performed so much I got a little tired of them, and bringing them back was part of the challenge too. So: it’s songs from different eras of life.”
Allen, born 20 June 1976, grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut. Music was always in the air. His mom played organ at church, and Kris took up saxophone by age nine. He was 14 when his teacher passed away, and he moved on to another local saxophone instructor, Jackie McLean. Allen didn’t really know who that hardbop giant was, until he met him—and saw how other people looked up to him. Allen got up to speed quick, and would go on to the study with McLean at the Hartt School of Music.
“Even before college, he’d have me over to the house to hang out; he’d play piano, and try to get me to play his new tunes. A lot of what I learned was through the oral tradition: playing back and forth, to hear not just the specific language but also how to project a personality. Once when I was around 18 he took me to task for playing the blues as just another chord progression, and neglecting the language: I remember some Pointed Words. Then years later, when I graduated from Hartt in 1998, he got me to take over some of his teaching duties. Leading the Saxophone Master Class, or teaching alongside him, was a big honor.”
McLean was an excellent role model, for how to move out from under a hero’s shadow to develop a personal sound. You can hear his influence in Allen’s singing tone, and expressive ways of shading a line’s pitch. He can growl, but doesn’t go hoarse in the upper register to signify passion. His lean tone never gets in the way of his fleet ideas.
The leader goes back aways with each of the players, all from the tight-knit multi-generational Hartford scene. His front-line partner is tenor saxophonist Frank Kozyra, who came up a couple of years behind him. “We had lost touch but have reconnected over the past three years. We played and toured with Zaccai Curtis’s three-horn band, and after that we’d get together to play each other’s music. Playing with another horn and without piano, I wanted the blend supertight. So we’d practice together one on one, to speak the melodies well.” Their melded unisons recall Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, though that’s not a conscious influence. “But Kenny Garrett and Joe Henderson on Black Hope—I listened to that a lot,” Allen says.
The saxophonists set each other off very well. Kozyra’s tone on the bigger horn is a bit heavier, but he lets more space in his lines, so the two balance out. They also sound good together when those unisons give way to harmony, shadowing or counterpoint. One horn will slide in under the other’s solo, or they’ll improvise simultaneously: what some musicians call a “duo solo.”
A stripped-down rhythm section places a special burden on the bass player to clarify the forms. “I knew I’d need someone really strong, and able to read some pretty outlandish stuff.” So Allen tapped Circle House vet Luques Curtis, one of the Hartford scene’s breakout musicians, like his brother Zaccai. Kris Allen: “I’ve known the whole Curtis family since they were little kids. Luques and I have played together for 20 years, and he’s not that old.” Absent piano Curtis is the band’s harmonic pointer, keeping the changes clear in his lines—even as the open setting gives the horns a little extra wiggle room. Curtis is a strong soloist too, who gets a little extra bump from the horns; their scripted bits underline (on “Rory”) or punctuate (“Mandy”) his improvising.
Curtis and drummer Jonathan Barber—you might know him from J.D. Allen’s trio—breathe together so the music breathes. And each is such a strong timekeeper, it frees up the other to play an accentual role. Barber doesn’t need to ride his cymbal to keep the pulse pulsing. Kris Allen: “I’ve known JB since he was a freshman at Hartt, and have used him on most of my gigs for five or six years. I didn’t have to give him a lot of direction here. He’d try out different ideas on different takes.”
Barber came up playing drums in church, which helps explain how the hymn-like “Lord Help My Unbelief” written for a Sunday service’s offertory became a drum feature—but what’s church without some bells? In the studio, as here, Barber segued directly into “Flores,” which taps into Luques Curtis’s Latin roots. Kris named it for the late bassist Charles Flores, with whom he’d co-led a trio alongside percussionist Rogerio Boccato. (They used to play this tune under another title.) Asked to ID the beat, Allen deadpans, “It’s an American quasi-Latin non-specific Cuban groove.”
There are other dedications and tributes. “Beloved” was written for Kris’s wife, pianist Jen Allen; Rory is his daughter; Mandy is the family dog. Allen again: “And ‘More Yeah’ is an imitation of my son Avery playing with a musical toy when he was young, the kind of discursive melody chubby toddler feet would compose, stumbling around on an oversized plastic keyboard.” The keening high notes on “Rory” may put you in mind of a classic Charles Mingus ballad, one seasoned with a little “1812 Overture.”
Having picked up the teaching bug from Jackie McLean, Allen now lectures and runs the jazz ensembles as Artist in Residence at Williams College up in Massachusetts. “I’ll invent little games for my students, and like to weave them into my work. ‘Bird Bailey’ came from one of those exercises—17 fragments of Charlie Parker tunes over the changes to ‘Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.’” Tenor saxophone and bass play the Bird calls under the leader’s liquid soprano. The idea came from the Cannonball Adderley/Ernie Andrews “Bill Bailey,” where the band shoehorns Parker’s “Cheryl” under the vocal.
Of all the performances here, only the closer “Threequel” has a straight head-solo-solo-trades-head format; elsewhere there are scored interludes, countermelodies, duo solos and other wrinkles. “I’m always exploring different ways to mix scored and improvised stuff. Sometimes I’ll write limits into the material. On ‘Hate the Game’ we make the song a game: Frank and I could only play in certain registers at certain times.” Allen plays a sort of game with the listener too. The opening “Lowborn” kicks off in an unobvious triple meter under a tumbling 4/4 riff, so it can take a minute to get your bearings.
“Mandy” is in 64-bar long form, on the chords to the obscure Sarah Vaughan/Bird & Diz/Leonard Feather ballad “I’d Rather Have a Memory than a Dream.” The melody turns back on itself, making the form hard to pin down. “I’m most happy with that one compositionally,” Allen says, “using two saxes and bass in different ways, mixing it up. The stuff I’ve written for this band since the recording has been more like this.” So no worries he’ll be short of material for album number three.
Playing songs old and new, Kris Allen pulls together his several selves: improvising saxophonist, games-playing teacher, family man. “I’m trying to be one person,” he says. “It’s not easy.” If he’s not home yet, he’s getting very close.
--Kevin Whitehead Fresh Air (NPR)/ Why Jazz? (Oxford University Press)
released June 17, 2016
Kris Allen alto and soprano (#6) saxophones
Frank Kozyra tenor saxophone
Luques Curtis bass
Jonathan Barber drum set
All Compositions by Kris Allen krisallenjazz (ASCAP)
Recorded at Peter’s Basement Studio, Westwood MA June 5, 2015
Mixed and Mastered by Peter Kontrimas June 2015