“I won’t talk much,” said tenor saxophonist JD Allen after introducing his bandmates, bassist Noah Jackson and drummer Rudy Royston, at the start of his set at Scullers on Friday. “But I love to play.”
He then proved both points over the next 90 minutes or so, leading the group through at least a dozen tunes with nary a pause to announce their titles. Sometimes the songs bled into each other without a break, as when mid-set Allen blew a couple of controlled squawks to conclude the standard “Stardust,” Jackson flashed Allen a look as he realized what was afoot, and the trio glided directly into “Jawn Henry,” an Allen original inspired by the legend of the steel-driving man who matched hammer blows with a steam engine.
That was followed by Allen’s “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil,” from his recent blues-focused album “Americana.” Allen had a new album of standards, “Love Stone,” being released in two weeks, but the other two standards he played Friday — “I Should Care” and “Three Little Words” — aren’t on it. Instead the focus was on his own compositions, drawn from his several trio albums with Royston and Gregg August.
Jackson, subbing on bass, had three opportunities to solo. He bowed the first of them, and the melodicism of his third made it his most impressive. More importantly, he kept things grounded when not soloing so that Allen and Royston were free to soar.
Royston’s freewheeling work on drums often felt like he was soloing, even when technically he wasn’t. His playing was spectacular, and thoroughly in sync with Allen’s. In a jazz world awash in fabulous such drummers, Royston’s performance was a reminder that he ranks among the best.
Allen, of course, was the focal point. He has been quoted saying that he is drawn to the trio format because “it allows for the greatest note in the world, which is space.” But holding an audience’s interest without harmonic backing is no small feat for a saxophonist. Sonny Rollins famously excelled at it. And so does Allen.
There was an emotional depth to Allen’s playing that transformed blues lines into poetry. He played occasional flurries of notes but was unafraid to slow down and emphasize long ones. It was obvious that melody counts mightily to him, whether written or improvised, and he played them with grace and passion at Scullers.
That there was considerably less than a full house to watch him do so didn’t faze him. As Allen was overheard telling an audience member after the show, “Sometimes I just play to heaven.”
At Scullers Jazz Club, FridayBill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.