Geri Allen: Journey to the Light

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Geri Allen's playing and compositional efforts manifest a stylistic flexibility grounded in her absorption of the lessons of the masters of the jazz idiom, and her desire to innovate upon that legacy. As an apprentice during high school and college, and then as a journeywoman, Allen has kept company with musical legends.



She just returned from a very successful European tour with "Timeline," a jazz quartet which integrates tap dance into its core arrangements; Maurice Chestnut is the dancer. She recently led an All-Star group featuring Ravi Coltrane
Ravi Coltrane
Ravi Coltrane
b.1965
sax, tenor
and Jeff "Tain" Watts
Jeff
Jeff "Tain" Watts
b.1960
drums
at the Iridium in Manhattan. Allen has illuminated the band stands of Betty Carter
Betty Carter
Betty Carter
1930 - 1998
vocalist
, Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
, Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland
b.1946
bass
, Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
1937 - 2014
bass, acoustic
, Paul Motian
Paul Motian
Paul Motian
1931 - 2011
drums
, Lester Bowie
Lester Bowie
Lester Bowie
1941 - 1999
trumpet
, Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
b.1938
saxophone
, Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
, and Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
b.1942
drums
. At various points in her career, she has also worked with the men of the long-established Trio 3 ensemble: Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
b.1939
drums
, Oliver Lake
Oliver Lake
Oliver Lake
b.1942
saxophone
and Reggie Workman
Reggie Workman
Reggie Workman
b.1937
bass
. She considers the collaboration on the just-released Trio 3 recording At This Time one of the highlights of her journey.

Trio 3 was formed without a pianist so bassist Workman, drummer Cyrille, and alto saxophonist and flutist Oliver Lake could explore harmonic conceptions freely. Workman says Allen's "tasteful and intellectual approach" made her the most logical choice for a "musical conversation with a chordal instrumentalist who also has a unique approach to improvisation and composition.

"Being deeply rooted in a wide variety of music and styles gives her the necessary strength and conviction. One can readily notice her quick, tasteful spontaneity as she approaches each challenge put before her," Workman said. His band mate Cyrille, equally skilled in free and straight-ahead jazz, made note of the "soulfulness and beauty in her playing. She ranks at the top with those other pianists of her generation who have absorbed what has gone before in this music and continue to play and develop new music concepts that we can presently participate in and enjoy, while laying foundations for future generations of musicians as well."

Allen feels that melding her conception with the Trio 3 ensemble links her to the artistic heritage of each: "I feel very honored to be a part of that connection. There's a power, authenticity, and honesty in At This Time. A personal power and fearlessness comes through. I'm just excited, at this point of my musical journey, to have the opportunity to enjoy being creative with these three musicians again."

In 2008 Allen, an Associate Professor of Jazz And Contemporary Improvisation at the University Of Michigan (in Ann Arbor), was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, which she has used to compose a solo recording, Refractions: Flying Toward the Sound, soon to be released by Motema Music. Refractions, or the change in direction that occurs when a wave of energy such as light passes from one medium to another, signifies Allen's dance with Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, three of music's most important pianists, and three of her major influences.

The beautiful, soft-spoken Allen was born in Pontiac, Michigan and reared in Detroit. She attributes her love of jazz to her father: "I remember seeing his records and the beautiful art work on them, and how elegant, stylish and sophisticated the people were. People like Ellington, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Sarah, Ella. He played the music all the time when my brother Mount and I were little.

"I remember my mother taking us to the Young People's concerts at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. We watched Leonard Bernstein's concerts on television as well, and I remember the piano really resonating with me." She began playing the piano at 7, and studied with Patricia Wilhelm from the beginning through high school. Wilhelm, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati Music School, introduced the young pianist to a solid method of practice. Allen studied much of the European piano repertoire, and her teacher also encouraged Allen's love for jazz. "That type of open-mindedness was unusual at the time, and although she had no real knowledge of jazz, she instinctively understood it took the same level discipline and study European classical did, and she respected that."

Her early experience in the Christian church was another source of musical grounding and spiritual awareness. "I went to church every Sunday growing up, and have memories of our pastor; he was brilliant. Music was a key part of the experience. I would sometimes play for the choir and even sang in the choir. That experience laid a foundation for my future interest in the sacred works of Mary Lou Williams."

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