Brian Allen may well be the best American modern jazz trombonist that you’ve never heard of. Allen’s lack of exposure probably has more to do with his choice to live and work in southern Texas than anything else. Every so often, he sallies forth from his home base at Brazosport College, near Houston, to work with avant-jazz luminaries such as Mark Dresser, Satoko Fujii, Ellery Eskelin, and Dave Ballou. The fifth in Allen’s impressive series of self-released CDs, Synapse is a daring bass-free trio with two of New York City’s stalwart improvisers; tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey. Allen displays extraordinary control and command of the trombone, and has rapidly developed into a distinctive modern jazz stylist. The presence of Malaby and Rainey on any session - free improvised or otherwise - ensures a pretty high likelihood for inspired playing and worthwhile listening. Rainey is the best known of the three, not the least for his ceaselessly creative, endlessly inventive playing in Tim Berne’s and Simon Nabatov’s various ensembles. Malaby is quickly becoming a top-shelf jazz tenor saxophonist. His gruff ‘bull tenor’ sound hearkens back to players like Clifford Jordan, Booker Ervin, and Billy Harper, yet his solos belie the patience and attention to detail that I associate with ‘cooler’ players such as Joe Henderson, Jim Pepper, and Joe Lovano.
Synapse is a freely improvised set divided into eight distinct pieces, none of which settle into predictable or linear patterns. On any given track, gentle solo musings or impromptu trombone - tenor chorales may give way to a sort of stripped-down mutant funk with either Allen or Malaby strutting out in front, or to broiling post-Ayler collective improvisation, before shifting to pointillistic, contrapuntal ant-music of the sort championed by UK improvisers. Solos, duets, and trios form, twist, and disperse to create an ever shifting tapestry of improvisation. Though all three players do some really jaw-dropping stuff throughout Synapse, Rainey’s drumming is what ties the whole thing together. His choices are nothing short of perfect throughout this CD - muted toms and cymbal scrapes provide warm counterpoint to Allen’s thoughtful trombone on ‘Meloncem’, his stop-and-start hi-hat snare drum tattoo crackles like a practical-joking Roy Haynes on ‘Alphren’, and his flexible, mutable approach channels and focuses Malaby’s and Allen’s seething energy on ‘Espancino’. Hopefully, these guys will continue to work and develop this potentially amazing trio. Synapse is a fine example of jazz-based free-improvised music.