Truth, Tradition & Karrin Allyson
No matter how diverse the vocal jazz tradition may be, ultimately, we tend to judge jazz singers by the common yardstick of the standard repertoire. Allyson's "book" includes many of the Tin Pan Alley songs of the "20s, "30s and "40s, show tunes and film songs of the "50s and "60s and miscellaneous post "60s songs that have become vocal jazz standards. She sings them all with great style and an unassuming authority. Her recordings of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "No Moon At All," 'some Other Time" and "Everything Must Change" are definitive. While her versions of "Azure T"," "Daydream," "I Love Paris," "Like Someone in Love," and 'stompin' at the Savoy" are probably the finest recordings of those tunes in a generation. Allyson's knowledge of the jazz tradition allows her to avoid recycling familiar ideas while at the same time retaining the qualities that initially made the standard so appealing. "I think it is important to adhere to a certain historical realness," says Allyson, "but if you can do something better or at least improve on it, then do it." She observes that, "I'm a little less fearsome [about singing well known standards] than I used to be."
While her 15 years as a professional musician have bolstered Karrin Allyson's confidence and sense of her own identity, they have not diminished her passion for jazz or her ability to be moved by the music. Consider her latest CD, her seventh for Concord Jazz, Ballads " Remembering John Coltrane, scheduled for release in May 2001. The genesis of the album is not a clever record company executive, but rather Allyson's own gut level reaction to John Coltrane's Ballads. "I have loved [that] album for years," she explains. "It really spoke to me." Then one day, as she was listening to the record, Allyson had a realization. "I thought these are such great tunes and obviously people have done some of them here and there forever, but I would love to sing it down, starting with 'say It Over and Over," and go through the whole list."
John Coltrane recorded the original Ballads in late 1962 at the suggestion of Impulse! President Bob Thiele. While it has come to be seen as one of Coltrane's least adventurous outings, Ballads is also now regarded as one of his most unabashedly beautiful records. Coltrane himself must have appreciated the unique relationship between a singer and a ballad since the following year he recorded another now-classic all-ballad album, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. "I love that record," notes Allyson of the Coltrane/Hartman collaboration. "It's the same kind of approach only theirs is the original deal."
Before proceeding with the Ballads project, Allyson sought and received Alice Coltrane's blessing. She also added "Naima," "Why Was I Born?" and "Every Time We Say Goodbye" to fill out what was, even in the LP era, a rather short play list. In keeping with the spirit of the original album, Allyson decided to use only a trio and saxophonists. She recruited James Williams on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and Bob Berg, Steve Wilson and James Carter on horns. "I had a wonderful time doing [the CD]. I love these songs so much and I love the band that was on it." Allyson points out that the album is not really a "tribute" disc and that the point of the record was not to replicate Coltrane's phrasing. However, she does hope that Ballads " Remembering John Coltrane will encourage fans to revisit or discover the original album.
Like many musicians born in the 1960s and after, Allyson understands the power of a single record. Often a new listener's love affair with jazz begins with that first defining album. For Karrin Allyson it was an old copy of Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley she heard while attending the University of Nebraska in the early 1980s. Although she was a classical piano major, jazz quickly captured her imagination. "I fell in love with all the possibilities this music brings," she explains.
After college, Allyson had a rather modest start to her career. "The first jobs I got," she recalls, "were in restaurants doing piano/vocal stuff." Like Carmen McRae and Jeri Southern before her, Allyson began to move away from the keyboard. "It was a gradual thing," she says. "I'd add a bassist; then a drummer, then I'd realize I'd really like to stand up so I would hire a pianist. I never said "I'm going to stop playing."" Allyson still sits down at the piano for a few tunes during most every performance. "I wouldn't trade the ability to play for anything. That's my first love."
Allyson eventually relocated to Kansas City where she surrounded herself with some of the city's finest instrumentalists. For almost a decade, Allyson has worked with a core group of Kansas City musicians including pianist Paul E. Smith, drummer Todd Strait, bassist Bob Bowman, alto saxophonist Kim Park, and guitarists Danny Embry and Rod Fleeman. "They're the best," enthuses Allyson. "I can't say enough about them."