Geri Allen: Apollo's Muse

Bob Kenselaar BY

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Pianist/composer Geri Allen is gearing up for her role as artistic director for an especially ambitious production of the 2013 Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival at the Apollo Theater. Presented as "Geri Allen & Friends Celebrate the Great Jazz Women of the Apollo," the program will offer two shows on May 11, 2013 that explore the legacy of such jazz greats as singers Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and Nancy Wilson, among others.

One of the major jazz pianists of her generation and winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work as a composer, Allen was approached about doing the program by Laura Greer, Associate Producer at the Apollo, who contacted her through Ora Harris, Allen's manager for the last 20 years. "This was an amazing bigger-than-life opportunity," says Allen, "paying tribute to some of our greatest jazz icons of all time at the historic Apollo Theater. I asked two conceptualists to help me come up with a unique and very special evening: S. Epatha Merkerson, the brilliant actor, director and film maker, and Farah Jasim Griffin, the noted historian, author and scholar, who has created the script. And we are all thrilled to have an amazing cast." Members include vocalists Diane Reeves, a four-time Grammy winner, and Lizz Wright, whose recordings have ranked high on contemporary jazz charts, as well as actress Karen Malina White, known for her appearance in the 1989 Morgan Freeman film, Lean on Me and other roles.

Allen describes the setting for the program: "the story is told by a young up-and-coming singer invited to a private Apollo soundcheck by her aunt, a member of the legendary Apollo Stage Crew, to witness some of today's grand dames of jazz in rehearsal. The young singer is witness to a musical journey flowing from the past, in and out of real time, as she is embraced by these great artists, who speak to her freely about their own influences." The influences are many: Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Bessie Smith, Mary Lou Williams, Moms Mabley, Pearl Bailey, Aretha Franklin, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Nina Simone and others. "These women become her muse, and our young singer finds her musical wings through this experience. We, as the audience, hear their stories and renditions of the hits which made these Apollo women famous, along with original songs with lyrics by Farah Jasmin Griffin."

In addition to creating and organizing the program, Allen will be featured prominently as a performer, along with her longtime working ensemble, the Timeline Band, and Terri Lyne Carrington, the drummer and composer who has collaborated closely with Allen in recent years. Other featured performers include saxophonist Tia Fuller, the Howard University choral group Afro Blue directed by Connaitre Miller, tap dancer Alexandra Bradley, guitarist Marvin Sewell and DJ Val Jeanty.

The Timeline Band includes bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Kassa Overall and tapdancer/percussionist Maurice Chestnut. "They will all be with me at the Apollo, holding it down," Allen enthuses. "It has been a blessing to have Timeline as a foundation. The band has been together for almost 10 years. In this industry that means a great deal, and I thank them now for the wonderful music all these years. Kenny is a great bassist and a great human being. I am grateful to call him my friend. He is the consummate professional and gentlemen. I know if he is going to be there, everything is gonna be alright. Maurice and Kassa have benefited greatly by being around him. Kassa is an incredible drummer, and Maurice is also outstanding and gifted."

Allen's other collaborations with Carrington include work on the drummer's The Mosaic Project (Concord, 2012), featuring some of today's most prominent female instrumentalists and vocalists, including Diane Reeves. It won the 2012 Grammy for best jazz vocal album. "Terri is a true visionary," says Allen. "In my opinion, she has created a shift in the music and continues to produce amazing and inspired work, including her newest release Money Jungle (Concord, 2013). She comes to music from a place of inclusion and empowers those around her, by way of her brilliant artistry. She is innovating."

Allen and Carrington have also teamed together with bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and are touring actively in 2013 as a trio. "Terri Lyne brought Esperanza and me together to perform, and it was magic from the very first note. It is so much fun and quite thrilling," says Allen. "Esperanza and Terri bring all that is beautiful and authentic about life onto the bandstand, and the music moves through time and space in a spirit of optimism and acceptance." The group, known as ACS, will be performing at the Montreal Jazz Festival on June 29 and touring Europe and the western United States in July and August. "We are celebrating the great [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter and will be performing many of the gems from his amazing body of work. We will also be performing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark in the fall, as a part of the James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival."

Another notable jazz vocal project for Allen is her recording with Elizabeth Kontomanou (Plus Loin, 2012), featuring a spare setting of vocals and piano alone and a wonderful, spiritual feel. "Elisabeth is an incredible force, and I hope she will come to the states to perform more often. Mount V. Allen, my brother, brought us together on a date in Canada. What a voice and what a fearless approach. She wanted to look at this spiritually based work, which is close to my heart."

Allen's recent recordings under her own name include a set of three solo piano-driven outings for the Motéma label, co-produced by Kunle Mwanga. The first, Flying Toward the Sound (2010), subtitled A Solo Piano Excursion Inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock , was the outcome of her Guggenheim Fellowship, and was met with considerable critical acclaim. The second, A Child Is Born (2011), was equally well received. "I always wanted to do a Christmas CD, to create a timeless photograph of shared memories of family, love ones and the true meaning of Christmas. Ora Harris and I visited Bethlehem in 2007, and this was a life-changing experience for me. I am grateful to [Motéma label head] Jana Herzen for providing this platform for me to express the joy and wonder of Christmas through music."

The third solo piano recording in the series is the forthcoming Grand River Crossings (2013), which celebrates Allen's roots in Detroit, Michigan. "This CD celebrates Motown and the Motor City. I revisited a reference from Marvin Gaye, which we explored on Elisabeth Kontomanou's CD. Some of the composers represented include Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. The Supremes, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin are also sources of inspiration. Gerald Wilson and Roy Brook's compositions are also represented. I wanted to embrace all the diverse aspects of the Motown, the Motor City pool." While the focus is primarily Allen's solo playing, guest accompanists include trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, an early Allen mentor, and Detroit-based saxophonist David McMurray.

In addition to citing her early Detroit influences and the modern piano triumvirate of Taylor, Tyner and Hancock, Allen is quick to point to another major source of continuing inspiration in her music and her life: the prolific pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams. "Her musk is timeless, as Duke Ellington so eloquently stated. As a pianist, as a composer and as an educator, I follow her lead in many ways still. I have been the musical director of the Mary Lou Williams Collective now for some ten years or more, performed her mass, "Music for Peace" with Carmen Lundy on numerous occasions, and I am always learning more through the experience of her music. My Christmas CD and my vocal suite, For the Healing of the Nations, written in tribute to the victims and survivors of the 9/11 tragedy and their families, found inspiration from Mary Lou Williams' mass for peace. She was a great humanitarian and continues to inspire in so many ways." Other notable recent work by Allen that honors Williams is her recording with saxophonist Oliver Lake, drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman, Trio 3 & Geri Allen, Celebrating Mary Lou Williams: Live At Birdland, New York (Intakt Records, 2011).

Allen's family is another powerful influence for her. "My parents, Barbara Jean Allen, who passed in '82, and Mount Vernell Allen, Jr., are my inspirations. My father recently celebrated his 85th birthday in Detroit. So many of his former students, colleagues and friends came to celebrate his legacy. This was an incredible experience, witnessing the impact that one person can have on an entire community and not really know it. This birthday celebration gave people the opportunity to say 'thank you' to him and to express how he'd changed their lives in significant ways. My brother Mount and I are close as well. My children are my life, and these are the areas that remain my focus. Music is a partial reflection of these things."

It's especially impressive to note that in addition to her extensive work as a recording artist and her active touring schedule, Allen has had an accomplished career as an educator, following a long family tradition. "My grandmother, Leola Allen, taught in a one-room schoolhouse, and my father is a retired educator. I never realized, coming up as a young musician, how much teaching would eventually define my life. It has, and I have been very fortunate to be a member of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance faculty since 2004. My students inspire me every day, as do my colleagues. I now know for certain that teaching is in my genes, and I love it."

Regarding other upcoming or ongoing projects, Allen hesitates about going into much detail. "It is hard to start speaking about other projects because there are so many incredible collaborations I'd hate to miss. I do have to congratulate NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] Jazz Master Lorraine Gordon for all she has done to maintain an incredible place for the music that continues to exist in New York City. I've played at the Village Vanguard with [trumpeter] Lester Bowie, [drummer] Paul Motian and [bassist] Charlie Haden, with [bassist] Ron Carter and [drummer] Jimmy Cobb, and most recently with Terri Lyne and Esperanza. I will be playing the Vanguard this fall, too, with [saxophonist] Ravi Coltrane, [drummer] Jeff "Tain" Watts and [bassist] James Genus."

Allen recalls fondly the March, 2013 concert she participated in celebrating the memory of the late Paul Motian at Symphony Space in New York. "What a beautiful tribute, organized by [saxophonist]Joe Lovano and [guitarist] Bill Frisell." And she looks forward to another tribute to a longtime musical colleague. "I am on the way to Healdsburg, California, to participate in a celebration of Charlie Haden, who won the lifetime achievement Grammy Award this year—congratulations Charlie!—and am thrilled to be with him again, to say thank you for all the great music he is contributing and has contributed, and be amongst friends and musical inspiration."

An upcoming fall performance comes to Allen's mind as particularly important: the opening of the 2013-2014 season of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jacques Lacombe, which will feature the world premier of Stones & Streams, Allen's original symphonic work commissioned by the Orchestra. Allen will also be playing piano for the three performances of the piece, which are scheduled for September 27, 28 and 29. "I am thrilled to be collaborating with the Orchestra and Maestro Lacombe. This is a maiden voyage for me, and I feel extremely privileged and honored to have been invited."

Selected Discography

Geri Allen, Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations (Motéma, 2013)
Elisabeth Kontomanou/Geri Allen, Secret of the Wind (Plus Loin, 2012)
Terri Lyne Carrington, The Mosaic Project (Concord, 2011)
Trio 3 & Geri Allen, Celebrating Mary Lou Williams: Live At Birdland, New York (Intakt Records, 2011)
Geri Allen, A Child is Born (Motéma, 2011)
Geri Allen & Timeline, Live (Motéma, 2010)
Geri Allen, Flying Toward the Sound (Motéma, 2010)

Photo Credit: John Kelman

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