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JD Allen

Photo by Bart Babinski

JD Allen (b. 1972) is a tenor saxophonist and composer. Raised in Detroit, Allen got his first professional break at twenty when he was hired by the legendary jazz singer Betty Carter. In 2008, Allen formed a trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston which would serve as his primary creative vehicle for the next decade. The group released eight acclaimed albums, toured extensively, and was even the basis of an Atlantic Magazine think piece. In 2019, Allen formed a new trio with two musicians a generation his junior: drummer Nic Cacioppo and bassist Ian Kenselaar. That trio’s latest album is Toys / Die Dreaming (2020); Allen’s latest is Queen City, a solo recital.

Allen lives in Cincinnati; we talked on videophone in August 2021. He was practicing when I called.

What were you working on just now?

“Fifty Second Street Theme,” Thelonious Monk’s tune. I was playing the melody of the bridge in all the keys. I hadn’t done that before, so it was a nice melodic exercise for the day. It’s a cool little line.

Was that the first thing you did on your horn?

No, I was playing “I Mean You” through all the keys, and before that, long tones, scales, and stuff like that. Just going through keys. I try to make sure I play everything through all the keys. 

Do you have a regular warm-up?

I do long tones, tuning, vibrato exercises, “Terraced Dynamics” in the Sigurd Rascher Top Tones book or an exercise in Larry Teal’s Saxophonist’s Workbook.  I’ll spend maybe forty minutes on long tones, or sometimes I’ll only do long tones, just practice that throughout the day.

Where do you usually practice?

In my apartment, just in the living room. I recently moved into a new place. I was a little reluctant to practice here because it seems like there’s a lot of tech people around working from home, but I gave it a wail one day and no one complained. I try to leave at least twelve to seven for practice time. I stop after seven, but those are my work hours. I haven’t heard any complaints yet; no one’s banging on the door. But I’ll practice and then I’ll try to play a tune – just to let people know I can play! Then I go back to sounding bad.

What’s an aspect of your technique that needs improvement?

Everything! But definitely my altissimo. Thanks to my comrade Mark Turner (and a host of others), the saxophone range has been extended. So it’s important to work on that. But it’s a popular thing with tenor saxophonists, so I don’t go outside with the altissimo too much. I’ve been getting into it more for the sake of learning the complete horn. There’s a great mouthpiece exercise for altissimo from Joe Allard called “the Shooshie.”

The beautiful thing about playing music is there’s always something you can improve, but technical practice, for me, is just a means to get better at communicating. When I play, I’m trying to tell a story, and that might not be something particularly technical. I don’t need to show off my technique. The story is first and foremost. 

How do you get better at storytelling?

That’s outside the horn. That means getting in tune with your surroundings, checking out other mediums, being inspired by things that have nothing to do with music. It’s important to look outside music and take what you’ve seen or heard and tell a story like that. Checking out how people speak, the use of space. 

Who’s a good speaker?

I like AOC for her passion and sincerity. Obama is a great speaker – he kinda reminds me of Captain Kirk. Obviously Martin Luther King, with his crescendos and decrescendos, and Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy. Oddly enough, I’m inspired by the way Mike Tyson speaks. He has a fragile sound, but it’s endearing and invites you in. Deep cat: good and bad. But his speaking voice – that’s the blues. 

Suggested exercises for musicians:

A good, full sound

I’m not really sure what you mean by a good full sound. That could be a lot of things, so you should find someone whose sound you like and then listen to them continuously. Not necessarily transcribing. I’m not a big transcriber, because the point is to try to emulate the phrasing and the sound. So you listen a lot, and then you try to copy it on the horn. It’ll happen – your throat will open up. It’s like you can imitate a person speaking. 

That’s a cerebral thing. In terms of the technical part, you cannot escape long tones – soft and loud, trying to play in tune. Some of the old-school cats in Detroit used to say if you want a big sound, stand in a corner and play your low Bb – bahhhh. You try to emulate a fire engine. That just wakes the horn up. You also get the chance to hear your sound because it’s bouncing off the wall.

Evenness of tone throughout the registers

What does that mean when people say play even? Do people listen for that? How does that factor? I’m not sure. When I’m listening to Dexter Gordon play, I’m not concerned if the shit is even. I don’t care if he’s sharp. What I’m listening for is the human element. Are saxophone players like oh, he’s not even, so he’s not good?

In terms of just mastering the instrument, the Larry Teal book is helpful – he has a few exercises for that. And the Sigurd Rascher book Top Tones is great for that, too. But in terms of communicating on the stage? I think if a person spoke extremely flat and even, you might look at them kinda funny. Because there’s emotions that come into speaking, so there should be emotions that come into playing also. The goal of an instrument is to sound like a human voice – that’s what I was taught. So for practicing, be even, that’s great. But playing, I say don’t think about it. Express yourself. 

Playing the blues

I’ve had people ask me that, and I ask them, well, do you listen to the blues? Because first of all, a real blues isn’t twelve bars. And then I tell them, it’s not just notes – I try to play the blues with everything. Another word for it is the cry. You hear that with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane – all of the titans have the cry. Then I would say, have you been to a black American church and listened to a great choir? And if they say no, I say I’d suggest you do that, then we can talk about the codified twelve-bar blues form of Robert Johnson.

We have to listen. We have to go as close to the source as possible, and study the tradition and make sure the roots are strong so we can then do our own thing. Because if you don’t listen, you can’t play that shit. It’s as simple as that. 

I would also suggest that they check out Barry Harris’s approach to practicing blues changes and do that in every key. After that, it’s up to the person in terms of soloing, because I don’t know what that person’s blues sound like. But if you want to get an education, first and foremost listen to the masters beyond the jazz blues, and then check out Barry Harris. You should be good to go!

Playing a ballad

Listen to the vocalists and the way they approach it. Don’t think of yourself as a saxophone player, think of yourself as a vocalist. That means knowing when to breathe and making decisions about register. If I’m playing a ballad, I’ll try to determine what part of my horn is the feminine aspect and what part is the male aspect. The feminine aspect, that’s usually the upper register, and the masculine is in the lower register. So I’ll try to find a key that works for that, or maybe a key where I can always put my low concert Ab in. Things like that. Pick a good key, and find a recording, listen to it, and try to emulate the vocalist.

Ballads and blues are important to try to master because all of the titans could do that. Especially for the older generation, at least in Detroit, interpreting a ballad really said a lot about if you’re a good player. If somebody comes on stage with me, I’m not gonna call something fast. I’m gonna call something slow, because then you’re gonna hear what’s happening. You’re gonna hear how they think, you’re gonna hear their tone. So there again: you gotta practice the long tones. If you don’t practice long tones, you’re not gonna want to play slow. 

Swinging

Well, first of all, everything in this country swings – it’s everywhere. It’s in hip-hop, it’s rock ‘n’ roll, it’s jazz. Again, you have to listen. You have to check it out. 

There’s a great video with Dizzy Gillespie talking about swing, and from what I gathered it’s a combination of staccato and legato. So I would say practice a phrase legato one time; the second time, practice it staccato. And then the swing phrase would be ooh-da, air-tongue. The swing aspect is the mix of legato and staccato. 

The younger generation, or a lot of the saxophonists today, they don’t use their tongue. A lot of stuff is even and legato. That’s the George Garzone school. A lot of people I know and love do that. The older bebop generation, they used their tongue. If you think about the reed as if you’re playing a snare drum – accent, accent – that’s where that comes in. I like the bebop style because it’s street. It’s a bit more urban and cagey. 

How do you organize your practice time?

I practice in twenty minute intervals. It’s like exercising – I try to get as many reps as I can in. But I know the goal is not something that I’m gonna accomplish in one day. It took me a long time to get where I’m at. So I gave up on, oh, I’m gonna accomplish this and if I don’t it’s all over. No, it’s just one step at a time. 

How long are your breaks?

It varies. I call that practicing in the cracks. But you want to refresh your mind in practicing, you don’t want to get worn out. So twenty minutes, take a break – five, ten, fifteen minutes – come to another twenty and you can refocus. I started making progress when I started practicing like that. 

Do you exercise much? How does that relate to your playing?

I try to do forty minutes of jump rope every other day or circuit stuff like jumping jacks, push ups and burpees. It helps to build my stamina and breathing. 

There’s a book called The Science of Breath which is really cool. They have all these exercises for breathing and I was doing that for a minute. I found that to be very helpful. 

How selective are you about reeds when you practice – will you practice on a bad reed?

I will practice on a bad reed occasionally, so if I get into that situation, I won’t freak out. But I’m sponsored, so I have the luxury of getting quite a few different reeds to see what works. 

How do you cope with not being able to practice? Do you take your horn on vacation?

Generally I don’t go anywhere without it. I’ve done a bit of travel this year without the horn because I wanted to experience that. It was for a week. I saw it, I did it, and I’m not doing it again!

Because that’s who I am – or, not all of who I am, but the horn has been around since I was nine years old. When I walk down the street without the horn, I’m invisible. I’ve walked past people that I’ve known for years, and if they don’t see me with the horn, they don’t know who the hell I am. I’ve had that happen quite a bit. Even people I’ve played with! Sometimes I just let them walk by and I laugh. 

I’ve gone to places without a horn and been judged in a certain way, but with the horn there’s a definition. It was a pass of sorts to get things, or to have access that I wouldn’t have had without it. So that can be a crutch. But if you’ve been doing something since you were nine years old, and you don’t have it – it’s weird. Maybe that’s something I need to work on: who the hell am I without the horn? Maybe that’s the next lesson for me.

Does the need to practice ever cause friction in your relationships?

It did in my earlier years. Now I know your partner should be someone who understands this is a job. A lot of times people think, oh, it’s not a serious situation, so that time that you’ve allotted for practice isn’t important. It should not be a situation where it’s them or this. It should be: you go to work from this time to this time, and this is my work from this time to this time. If they can’t understand that, then yeah, there’s gonna be friction.

You should put in four or more hours a day if you want to get better. If you’re not putting in four hours, or at least striving for that goal, then it’s not gonna happen. If they don’t understand that, then you gotta make that decision. Getting into this business, you lose a lot of relationships and sometimes even family. But that’s the decision you make, the sacrifice for what you want to do. 

I think you’ve got a few kids who play music?

Yeah, my two youngest boys play. Elijah, he’s sixteen, he plays the trumpet, his brother is thirteen and he plays the saxophone. And I have an older daughter who sings gospel music. 

What do you tell them about practicing?

I tell them do what you want to do. If you decide not to do this, it’s okay. Because I don’t want them to feel like, oh, I’m doing it because my dad does it. 

I tell them if you’re frustrated and don’t feel like practicing, go have fun, go out skateboarding and do your thing. I didn’t have the skateboard, all these activities. I just had music – that was everything. All my friends played music, that’s what I could do. But they can do a lot of stuff, so I say go enjoy life. When you’re ready to sit down, you’ll do it. Because the music calls you, you don’t call the music. This is not a decision. If they feel it, they’ll do it.

Let’s do a quick lightning round. Name one good:

Music method book

The Saxophonist’s Workbook: A Handbook of Basic Fundamentals by Larry Teal

Composition by a twentieth-century Russian composer

“Visions Fugitive” by Prokofiev

Booker Ervin performance

“Better Git It In Your Soul,” Mingus Ah Um

Son House performance

“Death Letter Blues” and “John the Revelator” 

Solo sax performance

Sonny Rollins The Solo Album and anything by Steve Lacy

Television series

Mister In-Between

Any final thoughts on the role of practice in your life?

Well, first of all, practicing means I eat! If I don’t practice, then things are not gonna happen. A lot of people count on me, I count on myself, so practicing means I stay in the game. That’s the practical aspect of it. 

The other side is that playing music is a protest of sorts for me. Anytime I pick up the horn, it’s saying, I’m in this world, but I’m not of this world. Because this is not a popular thing that we do. It takes a lot of heart. The fact that I pick up this horn, or if I see someone else picking up their horn, it’s saying to me that they’ve decided to live a tough life, but it’s a life they choose. It’s a protest, kinda a prick in the eye of capitalism. Like, yeah, I don’t have a million dollars, but I live a million dollar life. That’s my thing.

At the end of our interview, JD said he’d be glad to answer reader questions. If you have any, email me and I’ll pass them along.

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