Friday, May 27, 2016

Saxophonist Kris Allen - a protégé of the great Jackie McLean – advances the state of his art with Beloved, an album of originals

Saxophonist and prolific composer Kris Allen continues his fascinating evolution with his stunning second release Beloved.  The album's artful originals are simultaneously rooted in deep tradition while resonating with a personal sense of seeking.  Featuring Allen on alto and soprano saxophones alongside close friends Frank Kozyra (tenor sax), Luques Curtis (double bass) and Jonathan Barber (drums), the album will be released June 17 via Truth Revolution Records.

Many of the songs on Beloved are dedications to loved ones, while others reference musical models dear to Allen. The Connecticut native - who learned at the elbow of alto great Jackie McLean in Hartford and is now artist-in-residence at Williams College in Massachusetts - believes that music can help artists and listeners alike manifest the better angels of our nature: "I think art has a positive role in society, 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."

The music of Beloved has a hypnotic weft and weave, like the pattern of a beautiful Persian rug. With no harmonic instrument in the quartet, Allen leads the way, his horn a focal point, the weight of the beat in his sound. Low-toned and glinting by turns, his alto has an ideal complement in the warm, round sound of Frank Kozyra's tenor, as they voice melodies with a simpatico time feel. The rhythm section of Luques Curtis and the ever-in-demand Jonathan Barber plays the foil, the pair's sound muscular - with neither afraid to step upfront. In composing for Beloved, Allen aimed to challenge himself away from the piano and create a character for this band that is more open - earthy yet elusive, straight ahead but with a twist.

"Not having a piano or another chordal instrument in the band lends the music some mystery," Allen says. "The music still has complex chord changes, but things aren't spelled out so obviously. I've always liked the way that draws me in as a listener. I remember being struck by the Branford Marsalis Trio. They had a way of playing free that was open to structure that developed as the music flowed. As far as a two-horn band without piano, I always dug the Elvin Jones band with Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman, as well as Kenny Garrett and Joe Henderson on the LP Black Hope. I've always loved that sort of tight unison blend, where the melodies really speak."

Beloved kicks off with the warm, groovy "Lowborn." Another highlight is "Hate the Game," with its upbeat unisons and subsequent headlong alto/tenor chase. Allen composed many of the album's more lyrical numbers for people close to him. "'Beloved' is for my wife, while 'One for Rory' is for my 9-year-old daughter," he explains. "I wrote 'More Yeah' for my 11-year-old son when he was a baby. 'Mandy Have Mercy' is dedicated to our dog, just because everyone else in the family had a tune! But it's one of my favorites. It's based on this old Tin Pan Alley song 'I'd Rather Have a Memory Than a Dream,' which Sarah Vaughan sang with Charlie Parker in the band."

Several pieces on Beloved reference musical heroes and collaborators. " 'Threequel' is based on 'The Sequel' by the late pianist Mulgrew Miller, who was such an inspiration," Allen explains. "And 'Bird Bailey' references 'Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey' in the version by Ernie Andrews, with Cannonball Adderley quoting Charlie Parker's 'Cheryl.' Our rendition features a composite of more than a dozen Parker tunes played by the tenor and bass while I solo over the top. It's almost a compositional game piece. The Latin-tinged 'Flores' is for a friend and collaborator of mine, Charles Flores, a bassist from Cuba who passed away a few years ago, just in his 30s. Leading into that piece is 'Lord, Help My Unbelief,' which I had originally written for a church service, with lyrics. Now it's about having your faith tested."

From age 14 through his college years, the most important musical relationship in Allen's life was with Blue Note icon Jackie McLean. "Jackie's individual saxophone style was so striking, the way he blurred lines between the chromatic and the atonal, even if he was ultimately coming out of Bud Powell," Allen says. "But I learned a lifetime's worth of lessons from Jackie, soaking them up alongside peers like Wayne Escoffery, Jimmy Greene and Julius Tolentino as well as guys who were a bit older, like Abraham Burton and Eric McPherson. Jackie inspired my pedagogical career, too. I ended up taking over his saxophone master class in Connecticut, at the Hartt School of Music." Reflecting on Beloved, Allen adds: "I hope people hear love in this music - for the tradition of jazz, for the people I've written pieces for - and for the guys I'm playing with. We take music seriously, but we're a pretty lighthearted, upbeat group on the bandstand. As I said before, being around beautiful music - as I hope mine is - makes the world feel like a better place."

Born in June 1976, Kris Allen grew up outside of Hartford, Connecticut, and studied with Jackie McLean at the Artists Collective and University of Hartford. He inherited a love of music from his mother, a church organist who gave him his first lessons on a tiny xylophone. Although he showed a gift while studying classical piano, the young Allen fell for jazz upon hearing a copy of Lee Morgan's Blue Note LP The Gigolo and switched to alto saxophone. He entered two venerable jazz academies: first Hall High School in West Hartford, known for nurturing excellent jazz musicians (including Brad Mehldau and Joel Frahm) and then the Artists Collective in Hartford, where founder McLean schooled Allen in the blues and bebop language, composition and arranging. Allen was drafted twice for the Grammy All-American High School Jazz Band and named its Most Valuable Player in 1994.

With a full scholarship, Allen continued his apprenticeship with McLean at the Hartt School of Music. After graduation, Allen moved to New York City. Playing in multiple groups and fronting a few of his own, Allen also toured and recorded with the likes of Gerald Wilson, Illinois Jacquet, Andy Gonzales and Curtis Fuller, as well as Winard Harper, Andy Laverne, Mario Pavone and Helen Sung. An in-demand sideman, Allen has played in the groups of Jen Allen, Noah Baerman, Earl MacDonald, Benje Daneman, Andy Jaffe and Avery Sharpe among others. He is a member and co-founder of the Jazz Samaritan Alliance, as well as a member of the Truth Revolution Recording Collective. In 1999, Allen was handpicked by McLean to teach saxophone and ensembles at the Hartt School. He went on to hold positions at Trinity College, Southern Connecticut State University and the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. Since 2013, he has been the Lyell B. Clay Artist in Residence in Jazz at Williams College. Allen has also been a teaching artist for the Litchfield Jazz Festival since 2001.

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