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COVID Era Produces A New Crop Of Solo Records From Jazz Instrumentalists

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says COVID-era isolationism has produced a bumper crop of solo records from jazz instrumentalists. These include two very different new albums by two outstanding tenor saxophonists - J.D. Allen caught in the studio and Jon Irabagon recorded in the wild. He starts with J.D. Allen.

(SOUNDBITE OF J.D. ALLEN'S "THESE FOOLISH THINGS")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen giving "These Foolish Things" the gravitas of "Old Man River." It's from Allen's solo CD "Queen City," the nickname for Cincinnati, where he recorded it early in 2021. In the notes, Allen describes his own COVID-era journey, questioning what it's all about as the music world ground to a halt, then turning back to his horn - lockdown was made for practicing - and then towards self-reliance, making music on his own. He already had a sturdy, bluesy tone and deep authority as a player to build on.

(SOUNDBITE OF J.D. ALLEN'S "NYLA'S SKY")

WHITEHEAD: J.D. Allen's often rapturous playing on "Queen City" aligns him with lyrical but exploratory solo tenor practitioners like Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and Joe McPhee, a tradition dating back to the 1940s. Recording in a quiet, resonant space, Allen can focus on tenor's cello-like warmth. The studio recording catches all the nuances and lets him factor in the silence that surrounds him. The standards and originals on the album "Queen City" let J.D. Allen show off his handsome sound without needing to shout.

(SOUNDBITE OF J.D. ALLEN'S "KRISTIAN WITH A K")

WHITEHEAD: If J.D. Allen is a tenor griot preserving a tradition, Jon Irabagon is a trickster, a serious player with a playful streak. When COVID hit, Irabagon and family sheltered with his in-laws in Rapid City, S.D. So as not to drive everyone crazy practicing five hours a day, he sought refuge in the Black Hills just outside town, among the trails, canyons and roaring creeks, playing wherever. Jon Irabagon's album of solo field recordings, mostly tunes by or played by Charlie Parker, is called "Bird With Streams."

(SOUNDBITE OF JON IRABAGON'S "DONNA LEE")

WHITEHEAD: Playing and developing your music outdoors isn't like being in the studio. In the open air with ambient background noise, you may have to work to project your sound. On the plus side, Jon Irabagon had all that nature to interact with - engaging the birds, responding to his own echo, maybe getting tips about saxophone attack from mosquitoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Jon Irabagon leans into the lo-fi nature of this remote recording. Playing in the wild, his saxophone sound gets wilder, a rough woodsman's tone. There is another aspect to his playing out in Falling Rock Canyon, where sound carries far. The horn established Jon's own presence and identity as he haunted the landscape for seven months. That said, with his command of eccentric saxophone textures, his call isn't always recognizably human. Picture the hiker approaching this sound up around a bend in the trail.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON IRABAGON'S "MOOSE THE MOOCHE")

WHITEHEAD: You'd proceed with caution as the saxophonist goes full moose on Charlie Parker's "Moose The Mooche." In its own mischievous way, Jon Irabagon's Black Hills musings on the album "Bird With Streams" are perfect music for an era when we never know what's coming at us next.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON IRABAGON'S "ORNITHOLOGY")

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed solo albums by tenor saxophonists J.D. Allen and Jon Irabagon. On Monday's show, playwright Katori Hall. She won the Pulitzer Prize this year for her play "The Hot Wing King," which explores family, sexuality and Black masculinity. She's also the producer and writer of the Broadway show "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical." Her previous play "The Mountaintop" imagined the last night of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "BE THERE WHEN I GET THERE")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld, Charlie Kaier and Tina Callikay (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "BE THERE WHEN I GET THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.