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Kris Allen Finds Truth in Beauty and the Groove on His New CD at Stamford Venue

Sep 7, 2016

Kris Allen's career is "traveling on the open road guided by his very own personal aesthetic GPS."

Listen to alto saxophonist Kris Allen’s splendid, new CD, Beloved, and you might well hear in his rich, expressive playing, evocations of but never imitations of Jackie McLean’s searing, soulful sound or Ornette Coleman’s profound, plaintively moving lyricism. 

Similarly, in Allen’s role as a savvy composer with a varied palette, you might, from time to time, be reminded of Duke Ellington’s grit and gravitas or Charles Mingus’s hues and cries. 

But what you really come away with is that Allen, in this triumphant follow-up release to his acclaimed debut disc, Circle House, for all of his fluency in the language of jazz and deep knowledge of the music’s modern masters, is very much his own man with his own creative voice.

With its fresh, vital approaches and many resilient delights, this happy milestone CD is yet another sign that the former Jackie McLean protégé and much sought-after sideman’s career is traveling on the open road guided by his very own personal aesthetic GPS.

Alive with Allen’s signature qualities of clarity, lean, lithe lines, inventiveness, swing and artistic balance, this sophomore release—completely unmarred by the much-dreaded, proverbial “sophomore jinx”—promises a long creative career for the gifted saxophonist/composer with no dead ends or detours ahead, an independent expedition utterly free of cul-de-sax.

Celebrating the release of Beloved (Truth Revolution Records), the bandleader and noted educator from West Hartford, leads his quartet on Friday, September 9, at 8:00 pm at The 9th Note, 15 Bank Street, Stamford.

Doubling on alto and soprano saxophones, Allen heads his hard-swinging, piano-less quartet, which features tenor saxophonist Frank Kozyra, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Jonathan Barber. This is almost the same lineup as on Beloved, with the exception that Dwonszyk, who frequently collaborates with Allen and is thoroughly familiar with the CD’s diverse material, replaces Luques Curtis who played on the studio recording.

With no chordal instrument anchoring the quartet harmonically, Allen and Kozyra seem quite liberated, gracing the session with constantly interweaving ideas, smooth unison passages punctuated by streaming, virtually conversation-like exchanges. The simpatico saxophonists spin a sonic tapestry that, because of their skillful extemporaneous editing, always seems to have just the right shape, texture and colors.

A smooth, never once bland, seamless mood prevails, with brilliance provided not just upfront by the dual saxophonists, but also by the vital, integral contributions made by both Curtis and Barber. The highly energized bass/drum battery is ideal for this finely tuned quartet, in both supportive and soloing roles, all part of this kinetic chamber group’s cohesive spirit.

Credit Jay Corey

Right from the opening track, "Lowborn (Proverbs 62:9)," the CD’s pleasant aura of groove, melodic flow, unity and the anticipatory sense of hearing something new and surprising, perhaps even mysterious, takes hold. It doesn’t let up until the final bar.

Bright moments, crisp, crackling exchanges and variety abound, ranging from the flag-waving, show-stopping tour de force, "Hate the Game," to the mellow mood of "Lord Help My Unbelief," a pensive piece graced with echoes of Ellington’s devotional music.

Allen’s lyrical art—his deep appreciation of beauty—is exhibited here in several works inspired by those dear to him.

"Beloved," for example, is a love tone-poem dedicated to his wife, jazz pianist Jen Allen. Similarly, "One for Rory," celebrates the Allens’ 9-year-old daughter, just as "More Yeah," was inspired by the jazz power couple’s 11-year-old son when he was a baby.

The Latin-tinged "Flores" is a life-affirming eulogy for Allen’s late friend and collaborator, the Cuban bassist Charles Flores, who died a few years ago while only in his 30s.

A jazzman with an ecumenical, poetic sensibility, Allen even gives pause with his tribute to the beloved family dog with, "Mandy Have Mercy."

Along with Allen’s spiritual and lyrical sides, there’s also the hard-swinging, electrifying element that lights up, as on the CD’s grand finale, "Threequel." A tour de force burner, it’s based on "The Sequel" by the late, great pianist Mulgrew Miller, one of Allen’s musical inspirations. 

Credit Jay Corey

While the jazz life, which Allen embraced as one of McLean’s legion of wunderkind players, is a totally serious commitment, he also has a sense of humor and musical wit.

On "Bird Bailey," for example, he references "Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey" as he solos madly on soprano saxophone, while the tenor player and bassist are wailing away, accompanying his improvised lines by sailing through a composite of more than a dozen Charlie "Bird" Parker tunes. It’s a clever jazz gambol that pays off with many happy returns, including much good listening.

Allen’s passionate pursuit of jazz was nurtured by his studies at West Hartford’s Hall High School and his pivotal apprenticeship with McLean, first at the Artists Collective and later at McLean’s nationally acclaimed jazz studies program at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford.

"I learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons from Jackie," he said, "soaking them up alongside peers like Wayne Escoffery, Jimmy Greene and Julius Tolentino, as well as with guys who were a bit older, like Abraham Burton and Eric McPherson."

McLean, a much loved, influential educator, was also an inspiration for Allen’s path to teaching as a parallel pursuit. As part of his pedagogical career, he is now artist-in-residence at Williams College in Massachusetts.

As a teacher, Allen passes on the legacy of pragmatic knowledge, commitment and idealism that he absorbed from McLean, a master musician and empathetic jazz guru. Among those ideals is the concept that music can, Allen believes, help artists and listeners manifest the better angels of their nature.

"I think art has a positive role in society," he said, "even if it's a subtle influence of the spirit. I think music can help you connect to the best aspect of yourself, suggesting the values of diversity and cooperation. I know that I’m a better person when surrounded by beautiful music."

Information: the9thnote.com and (203) 504-8828

Jimmy Greene and his daughter, Ana.
Credit Jimmy Greene

Jimmy Greene at The Bushnell

Anytime the superb saxophonist/composer Jimmy Greene returns to play in Hartford it's a very special occasion, but his next date here is even immeasurably more so.

On Friday, September 23, at 8:00 pm at The Bushnell’s intimate Belding Theater, Greene performs new music celebrating the life of his daughter, Ana, who was six years old when she and other children and educators were murdered four years ago in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting at Newtown.

Greene’s profoundly moving, Grammy-nominated recorded homage to Ana, Beautiful Life, was released in 2014 to universal acclaim. Leading his extraordinary quartet called Jimmy Greene’s Love in Action, he’s joined by pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts.

Information: bushnell.org and (860) 987-5900

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