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Henry “Red” Allen: World on a String (Bluebird 2497-2-RB)


In all the flurry of recent interest in the byways of America’s vernacular music, one absence is particularly glaring - especially considering the undoubted fact that it was the pioneer which paved the way for serious interest in the the rest. That is, pre-modern jazz has, amazingly, simply not been issued an invite to the feast. Put off by its lack of “hip” credentials (a sour joke, considering the origins of that word) - and by childhood memories of dull retreads by revivalists - it remains a largely untouched resource...despite its strong timbral influence on the early free players, now very much back in vogue...

Perhaps the best way into this area, for those interested in “out” playing, are the late recordings by those such as “Red” Allen...who responded to the challenge of modernism by further developing their already highly idiosyncratic styles, in ways that still amaze. And, the best “Red Allen” is this.

Try “I Cover The Waterfront”, for example...and, you’ll hear exactly why he attracted such reverence from all & sundry. His trumpet, on opening, blurts & rips in a loose paraphrase of the melody, only to build through weird outbreaks of breathy half-valving that’d’ve given traditionalists fits. Yet, all the same, he’s not abandoning the song...simply turning what some would use as passing effects into the core of his technique. And, the result is no gimmick, by any means. In fact, in many ways - and, particularly in the contributions of the other players - this is actually a deeply traditional (albeit certainly not revivalist) set. Even Coleman Hawkins - usually the most challenging player in any company - is, here, simply outclassed by the astonishing Allen...

A particular favourite of mine is his romping through “St. James Infirmary” - complete w/a nervy & grained vocal, alternately rushed & dragged-out - which uncannily matches the idiosyncratic nature of his trumpet phrasing. And, then there’s “Let Me Miss You, Baby”, which was the cut that introduced me to the man...

Now, Allen’s no Don Ayler, by any means - or Don Cherry, for that matter... What he is is a consumately idiosyncratic traditional player, who’s not afraid to push his playing into some very startling territory...and clearly has great joy in doing so. But, without understanding (and, learning to love) music like this - not to mention the best of the 20s & the brass musics which spawned it - I’d have to say that, no matter how much “jazz” you listen to, you’ll never deeply understand the stuff, being trapped w/in a forshortened history that starts in midstream.

So, lend Mr Henry an ear...‘cause, I promise you, he’s well worth your while...




John Henry Calvinist