JD Allen/Sebastián Chames Quartet’s Performance at Pizza Express Jazz Club

by Madonna

Sebastián Chames, a pianist hailing from Spain and Argentina, concluded his jazz education in the vibrant city of New York, a backdrop that profoundly influences his musical expression. His compositions are adorned with lavish harmonies, resonant rhythms, and discerning allusions, a tribute to the essence of the Big Apple’s jazz ethos. Notably, his last three albums boasted collaborations with top-tier New York musicians, including the accomplished trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.

A dynamic quartet, specially convened for a brief European tour, shared the stage as co-leaders: Detroit-raised saxophonist JD Allen, now based in New York, and Spanish drummer Juanma Barroso, a longstanding collaborator of Chames. The quartet’s rhythmic foundation was upheld by the skilled double bassist Larry Bartley, who filled in admirably for the tour’s final performance. Evidently cohesive, the ensemble flourished in solos, yet the divergent compositional approaches of the co-leaders occasionally posed a curious juxtaposition.


Chames masterminds intricate musical architectures that navigate intricate forms, often twisting into unforeseen contours. In contrast, Allen’s compositions adopt a more minimalist essence, woven with bluesy threads and veiled intricacies that unveil themselves over time. The titling of Chames’ pieces, such as the evocative “Missing File in Abuja,” encapsulates his unique compositional language, while Allen’s concise “Cotton” hints at the enigmatic layers within his works. With both leaders’ creations juxtaposed throughout the evening, a subtle dissonance flavored the overall experience.


The performance embarked with a robust piano vamp harmonized by the resonant depths of the double bass and the agile patter of a contemporary jazz snare. Allen’s entrance exuded confidence and richness, toying with the chromatic nuances of the harmonic minor scale. The theme, christened “Die Dreaming,” exhaled a bluesy essence, Allen’s execution precise, and each note’s tonal subtleties distinctly articulated. Originally conceived for a piano-less trio, the piece was reimagined for the quartet setting. Subsequently, “Missing File in Abuja” emerged, inaugurated by an opulent unaccompanied piano prelude, promptly followed by a nostalgic motif. Yet, the core of the composition traversed an unconventional harmonic route, all the while buoyed by the relaxed pulse of the walking bass. The sequence further unfolded with the poignant rendition of the standard ballad “I Should Care,” delivered at a heartrending tempo.


As each musical narrative unfurled, the band’s prowess was prominently displayed. Allen, an authoritative presence throughout, transitioned seamlessly between introspective sustains and blues-infused riffs, occasionally escalating to brisk phrases that danced upon the underpinning harmonies. His lower notes boasted roundness, while the higher register bestowed an ear-pleasing timbre, accented by subtle vibrato and breathy nuances. In a role of sparse yet significant support, Chames conjured rhythmic impetus and ventured into imaginative lines whenever in the lead.

The first half culminated in a compelling amalgamation of Allen’s “Red Label” and Chames’ “Broken Swing.” The former showcased robust melodic contours concealing intricate undercurrents, with Allen adroitly weaving melodies through expanses of space. In stark contrast, the latter, a sprightly set-closer, traversed a whirlwind of thematic fragments, modulated keys, and imparted an air of buoyancy.

The second half mirrored the dynamic of the first. Allen’s minor-key waltz, aptly named “Cotton,” inaugurated the segment, ignited with controlled emotional fervor. Chames’ “Nice Bop” playfully interwove Monkish angularity with a jaunty bridge. Allen, once again, evoked soulful potency, punctuating the ambiance with moments of off-mic intimacy. Chames’ concluding piece unveiled a waltz adorned with a beguiling melody, shaded dissonances, and a delicately expressive piano solo.

Culminating the evening, the ensemble delved into the up-tempo rendition of the timeless standard “If I Were a Bell.” Commencing with a classic 1950s intro famously employed by Miles Davis, the performance embraced individual solos, leaving the audience yearning for an encore.


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