Later this month, the jazz composer and saxophonist Jacob Duncan is releasing “It’s Alright to Dream,” the first album featuring the Jacob Duncan Quintet, a five-piece combo that includes John Goldsby on bass, Gabriel Evens on piano, Mike Hyman on drums and celebrated tenor sax player JD Allen.
In addition to the album dropping on Oct. 16, Duncan has reassembled the quintet for a free sneak peek performance on Thursday, Oct. 4, at the downtown jazz club Jimmy Can’t Dance.
“It’s Alright to Dream” is a seven-track collection full of odes and deep thoughts and, in Duncanian fashion, the subject of each has an in-depth and often narrative back story, which Duncan nevertheless expresses through pure instrumental jazz.
Insider Louisville spoke with Duncan to peel back the layers and discuss the album, from instrumentation to whether or not he’s really related to pioneering suffragette and mother of modern dance Isadora Duncan.
“This is one of my more traditional albums,” said Duncan. “It’s a standard alto saxophone/tenor (saxophone) jazz quintet. There are a couple famous quintets of this same instrumentation … there’s some out-there stuff, too. It rocks out pretty hard. There are a lot of different grooves.”
Among those other grooves are funkier tunes and music Duncan describes as “swinging,” though he didn’t go so far as to call it swing.
The album was recorded in one long session, with the players working off one another to get in the pocket and find their groove. But with such high-quality players, the far-flung quintet hasn’t gotten to play together since the recording.
“John Goldsby, the bass player, he lives in Germany — he was coming in town this week, and I said, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll put that album out,’ ” explained Duncan. “Then, JD Allen, he lives in New York, I called him up and was like, ‘Hey man, want to come do this CD release?’ And he’s like, ‘Hell yeah!’ ”
Duncan said it’s particularly exciting to have the quintet together for a live CD release show, something that doesn’t always work out with jazz combos, which are often anchored by one composer or musician, with rotating players based on the availability of the ever-itinerant jazz musicians.
“It’s the ideal group in this style. I love all these people — everybody is super high-caliber musicians and also have really deep roots, melodic roots, and deep roots in the story of where this is coming from,” he said.
Those stories are often literal ones.
“I don’t write songs about nothing,” said Duncan. “There’s always a story or something I’m interested in.”
For the Louisville musician, the songs reflect deep thoughts on a subject, often an evolving viewpoint that changes over the course of several years as he contemplates. But where you and I might sit in a peaceful moment and just think, Duncan contemplates with a sax in hand and a song in mind.
“Sometimes there’s something I want to hold onto or reflect on over time that lends itself — to me — to writing a melody,” he explained. “And that melody is something that helps me attach some of those reflections to evolving thoughts.”
One of those matters of reflection is a Muhammad Ali quote — “Don’t count the days, make the days count” — and that reflection became the album’s “Ode to Muhammad Ali” song.
Other odes have a familial and historic connection to Duncan.
“I grew up hearing from my grandmother about Isadora Duncan and how she was our great-great aunt or something. I don’t know if that’s true. But it made me think that possibly, even things that aren’t true become myths in your life that develop you,” he said.
“Ode to Isadora Duncan” illustrates just how in-depth Duncan’s reflection on a subject can go. While thinking about his possible ancestor, his mind flew to one of Isadora Duncan’s first students, Stella Bloch.
After Bloch spent time with Isadora Duncan, she went on to have her own illustrious career, traveling the world to study dance and publishing books she had written that also included portraiture and sketches. These sketches took their subjects from New York’s artists, eventually including Thelonious Monk.
Monk is, of course, one of the seminal voices in jazz and sonically influenced Duncan’s tune “Ode to Isadora Duncan.”
But that’s not even the end of the mental rabbit hole that produced the song.
“I thought of Stella writing a letter to Isadora Duncan, describing this man she drew,” said Duncan. “Because I bet Isadora Duncan and Thelonious Monk would have got along just great.”
While Duncan and the rest of the quintet are on stage, maybe that reflection is changing again. But you don’t have to know what Duncan’s thinking to enjoy the tunes — and maybe have your own reflections.
The Jacob Duncan Quintet performs at Jimmy Can’t Dance at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 4. Admission is free. The venue is located at 119 S. Seventh St., below Another Place Sandwich Shop.
“It’s Alright to Dream” will be available for purchase, download or stream on Tuesday, Oct. 16.