Geri Allen Quartet at the Kimmel Center

Victor L. Schermer BY

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Geri Allen Quartet
Jazz Up Close Celebrates Thelonious Monk Series
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Perelman Theater
Philadelphia, PA
December 4, 2010

Once, when asked to define "jazz," Count Basie simply replied, "Tap your feet." At this December, 2010 concert, the fourth member of pianist Geri Allen's quartet turned out to do just that. Maurice Chestnut is a brilliant youthful tap dancer who works with a variety of music ensembles. In this concert performance at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, he utilized his feet and body movements to tap out rhythmic choruses that blended seamlessly and stunningly with Allen and her group. His tap dancing was supernatural in its virtuosity, and it was fascinating to see and hear how well it blended in with the music. Thelonious Monk, to whom this and the other Jazz Up Close concerts this year are dedicated, often danced on stage, so the occasion was ideal for Chestnut to show his wares. The intimate connection between dance and music couldn't have been manifested more clearly.

Allen is a jazz pianist of mountainous experience and skill; she has been around and done everything—including musicology, writing, and arranging. Allen likes to work with musicians who possess diverse capabilities and competencies that make for an interesting exchange of styles and ideas. Completing her group for this performance were bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Kassa Overall. Originally from Chicago, Davis is strongly influenced by the styles of Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, and Ron Carter—and, interestingly, the legendary electric bassist, Jaco Pastorius. Davis' classical training was evident in the precision and sound quality of his playing. Overall is one of a number of young drummers who, despite their youth, grasp the jazz idiom as if they are old-timers. He grew up with jazz in his Seattle home and, although he does hip hop, rap, electronica, and pop gigs, in Allen's group he artfully captured the jazz idioms of stride, swing, bebop, and hard bop, lending them his own unique flair.

The first set began with "Theloniously Speaking," composed by one of Allen's mentors, drummer Roy Brooks. Allen began with a laidback solo cadenza that demonstrated her great artistry, with a feel perhaps partly attributable to Kenny Barron, one of her teachers. Barron's influence could be felt in Allen's strong but mellow articulation, as well as her extended elaboration of ideas and motifs—a Barron hallmark. The cadenza had references to music that preceded and influenced Monk, complemented by Davis' walking, bouncing bass.

Next came a medley of two Monk tunes, "Introspection" and "Thelonious," where Chestnut's hot tap dancing included Monk's rotating dance or "ring shout." Davis soloed with rapid-fire, two-finger virtuosity, and Allen traded eights with Overall. "Ruby My Dear" began with another cadenza by Allen—melodic allusions alternating with super-fast lines—then stating the melody, with Tommy Flanagan-esque stylings. Here, Overall's sensitive touch complemented Allen well. "Rootie Tootie" rocked, again featuring Chestnut's astonishing dancing; it was clear that Chestnut was always listening to the music, and gearing his dance steps to what he was hearing. "Evidence" was done mostly in an up-tempo bebop mode, with Chestnut's taps and a knock-out drum solo.

The Jazz Up Close concerts feature a post-intermission discussion with the musicians, moderated by series curator/pianist Danilo Pérez. Allen recounted her experiences in the Detroit music scene, recalling the mentoring presence of powerhouses like Roy Brooks, Marcus Belgrave, Harold McKinney, and Roy Walden. In response to Perez's asking how Allen got interested in Monk, she said that Roy Brooks had worked with Horace Silver, who knew Monk; additionally, pianist John Malachi, from the famous Billy Eckstine Orchestra, hooked Allen up with pianist Mary Lou Williams, who was close to Monk and many other jazz pianists of the time. Allen further stated that she enacted the role of Mary Lou Williams in a movie.

Why the tap dancing? Allen said that Roy Brook was a tap dancer. Moreover, Monk got up and danced, and jazz is dance music. Chestnut recalled that his father played Monk on the record player when he was a kid. Similarly, Overall said that Monk was his father's favorite musician, noting that some of Monk's rhythms are clavé-oriented two-against-three. When Perez asked what can be done to convey jazz to young people, Davis emphasized that it's important to keep teaching it correctly to younger players. Finally, Allen congratulated Perez on his Grammy nomination for Providencia (Mack Avenue, 2010).

The second set began with an original from Allen's Geri Allen & Timeline Live (Motema, 2010), also featuring the same personnel as the concert. "For Philly Joe Jones" had the requisite percussive emphasis honoring the great drummer, with Chestnut and Overall trading fours in one sequence. It was possible to see how jazz partly grew out of the variety shows of the twenties and thirties, where musicians, singers, dancers, and standup comics all had something to say to one another. "Lover Man" featured bassist Davis, who employed a lot of unsyncopated straight-eights. He also employed resonant sustaining of notes—no doubt, with the help of his amp—to achieve a vocal effect. Chestnut tapped in a quiet soft shoe manner, and Allen's solo combined elements of stride piano with shades of Oscar Peterson. "Epistrophy" took off with Overall's jungle beat, then breaking out into swing with some interesting rhythmic changes from Allen, who only stated Monk's melody in a straight-ahead up-tempo at the song's end.

The concert concluded with what amounted to a blues variations by Allen, and for an encore the group performed Monk's "Well You Needn't," which included a piano/drums call-and-response that suggested that jazz's convention of trading of fours and eights may have derived from the call-and-response between preacher and congregation in African American churches. Indeed, Monk did a tour as pianist for a black evangelist in his youth, where he was exposed to many evocative, resurrecting church rituals, including the "ring shout" that he referenced in his onstage rotating twist, that made many people think he was crazy. In this connection, it's worth pointing out a minor omission in the liner notes to Allen's recording, which stated that Monk adopted his middle name (Sphere) in order not to appear square. Monk didn't concoct the name; as Charles Hollander points out, it was his given middle name after his grandmother Sphere Batts, and it was only after he first discovered it in the 1940s that he used it as a moniker to prove he was not square.

This concert represented one of many high level, high powered events in Perez's Jazz Up Close series—often rebroadcasted at a later date on WRTI-FM—and was the second of four Panamonk concerts scheduled for the 2010/2011 season, with Randy Weston and Martial Solal coming up in the New Year.

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