The second insight Allen gleaned was musical. When people talk about the blues—especially in jazz context—they’re thinking of a specific pattern, 12 measures of music with a roughly consistent order of chords. (A musician might make it eight bars, or 16 bars; she can alter the progression slightly, or add in color chords.) One thing Allen noticed was that the oldest blues recordings don’t obey the form. The 12-bar structure hadn’t been codified. A singer might sing 10-bar blues, or a 13-bar blues. He might sing a 10-bar verse followed immediately by a 13-bar verse, stretching out the music to fit the lyrics or a mood or a whim. Suddenly the form doesn’t seem so formulaic.
“That’s what I wanted to get to. It’s very elusive. It’s unique. You don’t know where it drops, or where it’s gonna take place,” Allen says. “I was trying to figure out, how can I do this in a recording?”
One asset Allen had was his band, which features Rudy Royston on drums and Gregg August on bass. It’s an atypical setup, because most leaders want to have a chordal instrument, a piano or a guitar, in the band to help maintain the harmonic thrust. Without that, it’s tougher for the musicians—much less the audience—to keep track of the chords.
“For me, playing with the trio, just bass and drums, it allows for the greatest note in the world, which is space,” he says. “When there’s that space, there’s a lot of stuff running through your mind. You think more about what was just played. Space is the 13th note.”
On Americana, the trio use that freedom, stretching songs out and twisting them around. The record is mostly Allen originals, plus one by fellow saxophonist Bill McHenry and the standard “Another Man Done Gone,” originally by Vera Hall but covered by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Elvis Costello to Hot Tuna. (Allen first heard Hall through the 1999 Moby hit “Natural Blues,” which is more or less a remix of her “Trouble So Hard.”)
Americana is a rich, woody, intimate album. It has some of the dignified propulsion and dark veneer of Coltrane’s Crescent, and just enough of the jagged edge of that recording. At times, as on “Bigger Thomas,” it’s straightforward, boppish jazz. At other moments, it’s more incantatory, like “Lightnin’.” The format allows the members to trade the spotlight, with each one taking the lead at times. At a recent performance at the Art of Cool Festival in Durham, North Carolina, the band had even more fully inhabited the songs since recording the album in January. Allen is a clear but not selfish leader. August took a long, bowed solo on “Another Man Done Gone,” on which the melody was deeply subsumed, only surfacing occasionally through a tempest of sound. Records hardly do justice to Royston’s explosive, riveting bursts of percussion. The trio drifted into free sections then merged back together smoothly.