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Truth, Tradition & Karrin Allyson

By Published: April 26, 2006

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."

Those musicians all appeared on Allyson's first CD, which she had to borrow money to self-produce. "I didn't know what a label was at this point," she says. "I just wanted something to sell on the bandstand to get the word out." A woman from San Francisco attended one of Allyson's shows in Kansas City and placed an order. "Her check and my CDs passed in the air. She ordered two of them and sent one to [San Francisco DJ] Stan Dunn at KJAZZ with a letter. She didn't even know him." Dunn got such a strong response from his listeners that he forwarded Allyson's CD to Concord Records President Carl Jefferson. Equally impressed, Jefferson purchased the record from Allyson and released I Didn't Know About You on the Concord Jazz label in 1993.

Unlike many jazz singers, Allyson had the good fortune to make her debut for one of the largest independent jazz record labels in the world. Despite undergoing some rough times following Carl Jefferson's death, Concord Records has remained very supportive of Allyson's efforts. "I feel very fortunate to be at this label," says Allyson. "I'm proud to have been signed by [Carl Jefferson] himself, and I have a great respect for the new President, Glen Barros. I think he's a quality person and that cannot be said for every record company executive."

Concord's vast distribution has allowed Allyson to take her music all over the world. She has played clubs and jazz festivals throughout the United States, Japan and Europe. "I love performing. I love touring." However, to keep her performances fresh, Allyson selects a brand new playlist for each set. "I never repeat stuff," she says.

Having paid her dues and built her craft, Karrin Allyson seems poised to enter a new phase of her career. "I've been doing this on my own for so long—booking myself, promoting myself," she explains. "Recently, I hired a new manager, and she is taking it up a notch in the promotional aspect and imaging which is not my bag." Allyson doesn't subscribe to the notion that poverty and obscurity are requirements of this art form. "I want to be as successful as possible," she laughs. "I work very hard, I love this music very much, and I want to take it as far as I possibly can."

Only time will tell how far that will be. However, one thing is for certain; the jazz vocal tradition could not be in safer hands.


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