Looking back over jazz critics' top 10 lists of 2009, two of the most notable themes were the big band bloom and rise of the sax trio. The debut recording of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society and the sophomore effort of John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble found their way onto many year-end lists (Secret Society's Infernal Machines placed #2 on AccuJazz's compilation of critical consensus) and both bands generated buzz that traveled well beyond the jazz cognoscenti. (Infernal Machines was reviewed in Newsweek for crying out loud.)
The sax trio, that bare-frame vehicle of pure acoustic music, proved the small-group counterweight to the big bands. The form may have been gaining popularity in recent years (see Joshua Redman's Back East), but 2009 is when it solidified into that most precarious of journalistic inventions: the trend.
Marcus Strickland's Idiosyncrasies, Fly's Sky & Country, Darius Jones's Man'ish Boy, and JD Allen's Shine! placed high on many critics' lists, but it was Allen's mid-August residency at the Village Vanguard that was the sax trio's moment of elevation. When compared to the innovative Fly, Allen's band seemed conservative—rooted deeply in the Sonny Rollins tradition of muscular solos and tight, swinging rhythms—yet somehow it sounded fresh, rag-tag, unscripted—excellence with an after-hours immediacy and intimacy. That Allen's music resonated with forward-thinking jazz fans spoke not only to his skills as a player and a leader but also to the continued possibilities of the form. Unlike the trumpet-and-sax quintet, which often lends itself to harmonically intricate JALC revivalism (think Wynton's Black Codes from the Underground), the bare-bones sax trio resists pretension—an ideal attribute at a moment when young jazz musicians are trying to court indie rockers far more than supper clubbers.
From Tuesday through Sunday this coming week, JD Allen, bassist Gregg August, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey return to the Village Vanguard; six nights that, like the great room itself, should use the frame of history to find new ways to point forward.