New York, NY
May 19, 2007
The time is 9 P.M. at Birdland, and jazz singer Karrin Allyson is about to open a four-night engagement at the famed Manhattan club. The musicians are all gathered together, and the singer is amongst friends with whom she's been performing since her Kansas City days and with whom she made her debut recording on Concord Records in 1993. Although she has recorded with renowned artists such as Gary Burton and Randy Brecker, tonight's old friends include guitarist Rod Fleeman and drummer Todd Strait along with bassist David Weiss. There's a bit of added excitement about tonight's sets since vibraphonist Steve Nelson, normally a member of the Dave Holland Band, will be joining the Allyson accompaniment team for the next few days.
Born in Great Bend, Kansas before moving with her family in Omaha, Nebraska, Karrin Allyson later relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1987 with a degree in piano and has been living in New York for the past seven years.
As Allyson takes the stage at Birdland, the audience may not be aware that the singer's carefully chosen set list will draw upon a number of the strengths that make her performances and albums so unique and, in fact, will include a series of songs from perhaps her most ambitious album, the Grammy-nominated Footprints (Concord, 2006).
Beginning with a mid-tempo version of Ray Noble's "The Touch of Your Lips," Allyson falls easily into the pacing of the tune, then makes a seamless transition into a scat delivery. There's scarcely a break between the Noble lyric and the singer's own inventions. Nelson vamps behind her, as if he's been there before, and Fleeman takes a relaxed guitar solo. For her second number, Allyson shows just why she's considered one of the best interpreters of Brazilian music with her version of Jobim's "So Tinha De Ser Com Voce." Her Portuguese is flawless, in a way reminding me of the work the late Susannah McCorkle did for Concord during her long run on the label. Nelson and Fleeman provide exhilarating solos. Then, the vocalist slips into a bluesy performance of Mose Allison's "Lost Mind," on which Nelson shows the influence of Milt Jackson.
The next portion of the set draws from the Footprints album, and Allyson takes the time to explain the concept to the audience. Using the format most popularly adopted by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross beginning in the late 1950s, Allyson and her collaborators (notably composer Chris Caswell) wrote original lyrics for jazz standards composed largely in the 1950s and 60s. There are some complications to consider in this process (e.g. Hank Mobley's "Turnaround" becomes " I Found The Turnaround" while Wayne Shorter's classic "Footprints" which already has different sets of lyrics written for itbecomes "Follow the Footprints"; the Adderley Brothers' instrumental, "Teaneck," which appeared on the 1961 album with Nancy Wilson, now has lyrics added and a name change: "I Can't Say"; John Coltrane's "Lazy Bird" becomes "Lightning"; and the Dizzy Gillespie classic "Con Alma" morphs into "Something Worth Waiting For." While all of the preceding lyrics were penned by Caswell, Karrin Allyson contributed her own words to the infectious Duke Jordan tune "Jordu." Having been through this process before, as a jazz afficionado I've long concluded that a catchy lyric written to a durable instrumental jazz standard is a step upward.
Allyson then pays a respectful visit to her successful album Ballads: A Remembrance of John Coltrane. While the album was able to incorporate saxophonists James Carter and Bob Berg to channel the spirit of Coltrane, they were not essential to her interpretation of "Over and Over Again," a song intimately associated with the tenor giant. Of particular note is a sensitive guitar solo from Fleeman. The pace then picks up with Allyson's interpretation of Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'," with Steve Nelson injecting some four-mallet soul jazz. Fleeman follows with a long solo, and bassist David Weiss is also afforded a solo opportunity. The first set concludes, and one is left with the pleasure of having heard how well Nelson fits in with the regular group. It's been years since we've heard him in this type of setting, recalling his work in the late 1980s, as leader and sideman, on labels like Criss Cross, Red and Sunnyside.
Following the performance, I pose a number of random questions to the singer, hoping to gain some insight into her thought about her own art and a number of jazz-related matters.
Whose idea was it to go ahead with the Coltrane ballad album? While the project was Allyson's own concept, the singer stresses that she always relies on the help and influence of her musical colleagues as well as her friends and family as opposed to living in a vacuum.