Truth, Tradition & Karrin Allyson
One lesson Karrin Allyson learned from all her influences is about the endless possibilities of this music. "Jazz singing," she notes, "is a huge world in which to choose interpretation and material. You can take any tune and do it in a jazz way." Which is exactly what Allyson does. She estimates that she knows "probably a couple thousand tunes." However, it misses the point to call Allyson's repertoire "eclectic." Her style draws together nearly all of the major musical ideas that have shaped vocal jazz in the last 80 years and, in the process, redefines existing notions of "traditional" jazz singing.
Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto and Frank Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim ensured that the intersection of Brazilian and American popular music would not simply be another musical fad. The songs of Jobim, Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento may not be part of the Great American Songbook, but they are certainly an indispensable part of the standard repertoire. Allyson's first five CDs all contained Brazilian tunes and she immersed herself in the music for 1999's From Paris to Rio. She notes that audiences respond strongly to this repertoire. "There's an exoticism to the material. It takes them to another place. It's not only the rhythms, though I think that's the first thing that hits the listener."
The Brazilian songbook has also held an especially strong appeal for American vocalists. Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mark Murphy, Rosemary Clooney and Susannah McCorkle have all devoted entire albums to the music. Allyson believes part of that interest comes from the challenge presented by the repertoire. "It's quite complicated stuff," she says, 'sort of deceptively simple." However, Allyson handles it with real sophistication usually singing the material's original Portuguese lyrics. She cites the legendary Brazilian singers Elis Regina and Nara Le?o as important influences. Although she has explored much of the familiar Jobim catalog, including particularly lovely versions of "Insensatez" and "Corcovado," on From Paris to Rio Allyson dug deeper into the Brazilian tradition for material rarely heard north of the equator.
As the album title suggests, From Paris to Rio also explored Allyson's interest in French chanson. The standard repertoire has co-opted a number of Gallic melodies over the years including "Autumn Leaves" and "I Wish You Love," and even Pops recorded "La Vie En Rose." However, Allyson, who speaks fluent French, has not had to limit herself to just those melodies with English lyrics. "I'm in love with other languages," she notes.
Allyson's ear for a good song has also allowed her to successfully pull material from contemporary pop into her repertoire. Jazz musicians and singers have been recording Rock Era pop for over 35 years. And while we are justifiably haunted by the memory of Ella Fitzgerald's "Hey Jude" and Frank Sinatra's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," subsequent generations of singers have shown that this material can be made to work in a jazz context. In the age of Eminem, Destiny's Child and J-Lo, tunes by the Beatles, Randy Newman, Janis Ian and Bonnie Raitt should not be seen as radical song choices. Allyson certainly doesn't treat them that way. In fact, she seems to select pop tunes for the same reason she chooses all her material " quality. She understands that having been written by Billy Joel doesn't change the fact that "And So It Goes" is a great song.
Instrumental tunes, done either as scat or vocalese, make up a significant part of her repertoire. Musically, her interest is in the composers of the bop era. She has performed tunes by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Gigi Gryce, Bud Powell and Clifford Brown. The relationship between standard tunes and their counterparts from the bop universe also intrigues Allyson. So she sings "How High the Moon" with "Ornithology," "Indiana" with "Donna Lee" and "It Could Happen to You" with "Fried Bananas." "I think it's important [when improvising] to start with the original melody," observes Allyson.
Some aspects of the vocal jazz tradition constitute a smaller portion of Allyson's work. Although not a Blues singer per se, her singing is informed by the idiom and she occasionally performs an up-tempo Blues. Similarly, Allyson is not afraid to cross the Berlin Wall that separates vocal jazz and cabaret in order to bring back a good tune. While she is interested in songwriting, Allyson has largely avoided recording her own compositions. "I perform some of my tunes live, but I'd like to work on more original work. I have a lot of unfinished stuff. The problem is that I want them to end as good as they started and not just cop out in some trite thing. But then again," she laughs, "there are quite a few trite standards."