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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."
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