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Truth, Tradition & Karrin Allyson

By Published: April 26, 2006

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."

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."

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