JD Allen has the most important tool a musician can possess: a unique, unmistakable sound and style. Although others have compared him to John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, there is a stubborn individuality to his work. His tenor has a brawny sonority and a clean finish. His phrases are at once aggressive and circumspect, seemingly contradictory attributes that give his playing a tense, enigmatic reserve. It is an approach that fits with and is deepened by the inspiration for this collection of tunes — bullfighting. Working with his core trio of drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Gregg August, Allen bookends this music with the title track, opening with it from the point of view of the matador, and closing with the bull. As he explains in the liner notes, all three musicians are playing in a different meter, lending further fluidity to the circular thrust-and-parry.
Another trait that sets Allen apart is his brevity. The longest of these dozen tracks clocks in at 4:45, and for those accustomed to grooves or the spooling out of extended ideas, it’s an initial jolt to hear the band abruptly cease. But it’s all a part of Allen’s no-nonsense mien. His work is obviously informed by the blues, free jazz, and even some R&B, with bop as the foundation, but his compositions are frequently an amalgam of these, pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to make a greater picture, but without ornamentation — he gets in and gets out, studiously evading clichÃ©s. “Ring Shout!” boils with passion, but not the Latin stereotypes you might imagine. “Santa Maria [Mother]” is poignant for its elliptical restraint (and August’s wonderful bass), and “Cathedral” is spooky not for its spacious silences but for the foreboding drone of the bowed bass and the drum accents against the bluesy horn. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on Allen’s M.O., he gives you a “Paseillo” that is mostly extended quotes of “Down By the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” With a swirl of the cape, he’s somewhere else.