During the 1960s, Bernard Stollman’s ESP label worked a side of the street that was largely left untouched by any other labels. The jazz end of their roster was dedicated almost entirely to obscure (at the time) avant-gardists, and although Stollman claimed to know little about the music he was presenting, his historical track record has turned out to be remarkably good. Some of the musicians represented by ESP have acquired legendary status: among them, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Paul Bley, Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock. But even the artists who eventually drifted into obscurity turned in efforts that are worthy of close attention.
Alto saxophonist Byron Allen is one of them. The Byron Allen Trio is a no-frills affair by Allen, bass player Maceo Gilchrist and drummer Ted Robinson. It’s evident that they’re young players, largely still in thrall to the Live at the Golden Circle trio of Ornette Coleman, David Izenson and Charles Moffett. But they’re good students, finding ways to make valuable use of what they’ve been taught. That makes The Byron Allen Trio a fine album on its own terms, although you wonder what the trio might have turned into, given time to develop.
“Time is Past” begins things briskly, with Robinson skillfully pushing an engaged Allen forward. The altoist is by turns bluesy, boppish and free. There are times when his linear playing resembles Jimmy Lyons, but the twisting lines are straight out of Ornette, and they retain the master’s sense of order and logic. Maceo Gilchrist’s role is harder to define. When he’s not using the bow, he tends toward observational commentary. He doesn’t add much to the pulse and he doesn’t engage in dialogue. Still, he’s effective; he knows what to put in and what to leave out. The music needs a third voice as a kind of mediator, and GIlchrist provides one. “Three Steps in the Right Direction” is a blindingly fast piece that features long, articulate lines by the leader. Robinson utilizes some left hand snare figures that come out of Sunny Murray. Although “Decision for the Cole-man” is, like the other tunes, taken at a fast tempo, Gilchrist’s lyricism is on display during large segments of his solo. Dedicated to Ornette, it’s the piece that most strongly pays homage to the Golden Circle trio. There’s enough individuality to keep it from being Coleman-lite though, and the prowess of all three players is easily apparent. “Today’s Blues Tomorrow” is the genuine article — a real blues in spirit, loose and funky and slightly off-kilter in an appealing way. The drums bully the saxophone a little (which works in this context) while Gilchrist holds down the fort with a steady walk. Gradually Allen takes up the challenge of the drums, ratcheting up his playing enough to hold his own, but steadfastly maintaining a heartfelt blues feel. After a thoughtful bass solo, the saxophone returns elegiacally, but again intensifies, moving briefly to a 6/8 semi-flamenco, to take the piece, and the album, out. The Byron Allen Trio is a convincing effort from start to finish, and one of ESP’s lost gems.