Karrin Allyson is one of the busiest jazz vocalists on the domestic and international scene these days. Starting her musical journey studying classical piano, Allyson discovered jazz and jazz singing in college and thus claimed her future.
Over the years, Allyson has honed her singing, songwriting and piano skills and has recorded twelve CDs, all on the Concord Record label; the longtime association considered a major feat in the recording industry. This has led to three Grammy nominations in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category; the latest nomination coming in 2008 for her Imagina: Songs of Brasil CD.
A long way from her native Kansas, Allyson tours extensively playing in traditional jazz venues all over the world as well as at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the 92nd Street Y in New York City where she now makes her home. She sings in French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, as well as in English and the songs she performs are drawn from a variety of genre including bossa nova, blues, bebop, standards and vocal performances of several instrumental jazz compositions.
Allyson's vocal qualities are distinctive, her emotional range is wide and she is a devoted, lyric-driven storyteller.
All About Jazz: Why do you sing?
Karrin Allyson: Why do I sing. Well, I love to sing. I started with piano as a classical piano major. I thought that was what I was going to do with my life. I always liked to sing a little. My mom was a musician. She was always telling me when she was conducting little children's choirs in the church- my dad was a minister, my grandfather was a minister. Lutheran. But it still was left wing politics, I might add. We were brought up that way. But she could always count on me to open my mouth and lead something. You know, not be afraid in front of people.
So when I was studying classical piano and I think it was under the Pace methodthere was a Robert Pace method which was improvisation which was unusual for classical piano things. They would just give you chord changes and you could just do over "Home on the Range" or whatever. So anyway, then I discovered the wonderful songwriters of my day in the sixties and seventies, mostly the seventies.Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Carole King. And I'd go out and get the sheet music to these things just 'cause I loved the songs. Then I would play around with them and sing. And a little encouragement goes a long way when you can lean toward the ham side of things. And people would say, "Oh, you sound good doing that." So you start doing more of that.
And when I discovered jazz in college, while I was a piano major, that's when it really hit me that that's what I wanted to do because I heard Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole. The goodies. And Ella Fitzgerald, of course. So the storytelling things in jazz, that's what's kept me interested. That's the music that keeps me interested.
AAJ: Yes, because jazz has a tendency not to get boring. So, now you're singing jazz.
KA: But I was still singing other things. Like I would start with other things. Like I was doing piano solo gigs for four and five hours a night. I would include a jazz tune here and there and try to accompany myself, but I would still do pop tunes, show tunes, classical things, a short piece here and there for the diners. So it was a real mixture. I was in all kinds of bandsrock bands, funk bands, wedding bands, variety bands. Then, finally like I said, in college I really steered toward jazz and got a quartet together and focused on that repertoire.
AAJ: Were you just singing or were you singing and playing piano?
KA: I got away from playing more once I got into jazz. Now, I'm getting back to it.
AAJ: It's difficult to focus when you do both.
KA: It is. The greats like Nat "King" Cole and Shirley Horn and Blossom Dearie and Carmen played for herself beautifully but she got away from it, too. I don't really know the reasoning there. It would be interesting to find out. But when you're trying to master one or focus on one, it takes away from the other. Then again, there are tunes that I'd rather play on and sing than have somebody play them for me.
AAJ: Well, you can do it. It's just that you play less.
KA: It's just that it's different. I am an accompanist for myself. It's an art. Accompaniment, depending on who you're accompanying; a horn player or a singer, or whatever. And I love having guitar in my band because it opens up. I can do the Brazilian stuff. Not that you can't do it without a guitar. But I can do almost anything with a guitar in my band. And that way I can stand up and work with piano when I want.
AAJ: And you can even do without piano with a guitar. You can do without drums.
KA: Absolutely. We break it up. Yes.
AAJ: Okay. Segueing into Brazilian, your CD Imagina: Songs of Brasil.
KA: Well, I've always loved Brazilian music. We've always included it. I have eleven CDs on Concord Record, eleven CDs I have. The very first CD I put out myself when I was living in Kansas Cityit's a long story, but a sweet story. A very dear friend well, she's a very dear friend now. I didn't know her then. She came to one of my gigs in Kansas City. She's from the Bay area. And she said, "I want to try and get you airplay out there because there's a DJ out there who likes to play new singers." I said, "Okay."
Well, my CD wasn't pressed yet, so I sent it to her when it was. That's all I meant to do with it was sell it on the bandstand because everyone asked if I had anything. And so I sent it to her, didn't think more about it. Pretty soon, the Soundtrack Studios where we recorded it in Kansas City called me and said that they were getting calls about my CD. That was the phone number on it. And so they said, "Should we give them your phone number?" I said, "Yes, give them my phone number."
So they started to call me. So I called a DJ at KJAZZ in the Bay area at the time to thank him for playing the CD. He had a show on every weekday from like six in the morning until eleven am for people who were stuck in traffic in their cars and he was playing the hell out of this record. So I called him to thank him. He said, "Well, I'd really like to play this for Carl Jefferson" who was the founder and president of Concord Records. It turned out he was the west coast promoter. So I said, "Okay."
So anyway, we got together and Carl Jefferson said, "Well, why don't we just bring you out here and we'll talk about it" because he liked the CD. And so I went out there and signed a three album contract. He bought the first one from me and reissued it. Repackaged it and re-released it on their label. So that was the beginning of that and I've made eleven with them since then. We have a Best of Karrin Allyson CD coming out in June. It's not the end of a career.
AAJ: That's great when you get to the point where you have enough catalog to do that.
KA: Exactly. We've got a ton. It's about thirteen tunes, taking one from each CD with one that was unreleased. There's a bonus track. It's a Tadd Dameron song.
AAJ: Because usually when you go into a studio, you over record. You do more than you really need. So there's always something left on the shelf.
KA: Right. As far as the Brazilian music goes. I mentioned that we have eleven CDs out. So the very first CD I did, we had two Brazilian songs on it. Basically what I'm saying I've always loved it and on almost every CD there's been a Brazilian tune. I finally just decided to really focus on it and do a whole Brazilian project. We had a CD called From Paris To Rio out which did very well. That was French and Brazilian tunes. So people had asked a lot when I was going to put out a Brazilian CD. I do listen to my friends and fans to see what they might like.
AAJ: How long did it take you to learn Portuguese?
KA: Well, I learn it tune by tune. I don't speak Portuguese. I speak French. It was my minor in college. But my friend Lucia Guimaraesshe's been my coach for the tunes and she's really good.
AAJ: Your pronunciation is so precise.
KA: Thank you. Muito obrigada. I love it very much. I love languages. And I feel like to try and sing the songs in the original language helps to transport us. Playing it and listening to it. So it's different than simply singing English on top of a Brazilian song. Nothing wrong with that but I feel like it's a nice thing if you can try to learn the language it was originally written in.
AAJ: The other thing is the sounds in Portuguese are soft.
KA: Yes, you're right. It's a beautiful sound. Well, to receive a Grammy nomination for Imagina: Songs of Brasil was a big honor.
AAJ: I think it's wonderful. It was a beautifully done album. The packaging was lovely; the artwork.
KA: Thank you. I loved that artwork. And the musicians did a beautiful job. I loved Gil Goldstein on accordion and, of course, Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba.
AAJ: So you're going to keep doing Brazilian songs here and there.
KA: Oh, yes. It's always been in the repertoire. It's just more so now because of this project.
AAJ: But also, last year was the 50th anniversary of the bossa nova so there's a lot of Brazilian stuff coming out and a lot of performers showing up doing Brazilian stuff including Brazilians.
KA: Thankfully. That's why we wanted to do the CD as well.
AAJ: The Brazilians have such a wonderful joy in their music. They celebrate life.
KA: They sure do.
AAJ: And it really doesn't matter if you don't understand what the words mean.
KA: No, no. It's true. That's exactly right because music is a universal language. But sometimes people are burning to know the words. What gets me is sometimes we have people writing into our website asking, "Can you please send me the lyrics to a song we recorded?" But I'm singing the lyric in English. It's so funny to me.
AAJ: That's one thingyour diction. I've heard too many sloppy singers.
KA: Well, I know I want to know what they're saying when they're singing. Otherwise, I wouldn't be listening to a singer. You're telling a story.
AAJ: So, do you have anything brewing about your next project?
KA: It's brewing, that's for sure. I hate to say about our next project. I do have several things brewing.
AAJ: Okay, fine. But you do have something in the works.
KA: Yes. As I said, that CD is slated to come out in June and then we hope to go back into the studio later and do something.
AAJ: That's what I wanted to know. Now, the road.
KA: The road. Well, I spend probably about sixty percent or seventy percent of my time on the road. Yes. You can check on our website. It's Karrin.com and you can see where we're going. But I'm also fortunate enough to have at least two to three leader gigs in my town per yearlike New York is my town now. That's great. Birdland, of course and then also Dizzy's [Club Coca Cola] in the fall. So I have a lot New York things going on as well which is great, but I travel all the time.
AAJ: How often do you do Europe?
KA: It's becoming more and more. Usually it's once or twice a year at this point. In fact we're going to the Czech Republic and to Hungary, that's Eastern Europe of course. But we just back from Italy and Switzerland for two weeks. And we're playing the Norway Jazz Festival in August. So, it's not a ton, but it's getting more and more.
AAJ: The Orient. Have you done that?
KA: Yes, I've played Japan many times. I've never been to China nor Korea. So really, only Japan in the Orient. I hope to get to these other places.
AAJ: Because Shanghai, Singapore.
KA: I have been to Singapore. Sorry, I have played in Singapore. And love going just about anywhere that they want to have us. Really, it's not that I don't care, but I enjoy different cultures. I love the different foods. I love different feelings that folks have about things and that we can share ours and be sort of ambassadorsyou know, musical ambassadors. I love the potential for that.
AAJ: Jazz does that.
KA: It does.
AAJ: Out of all we have and my big thing is this country doesn't even know what it has.
AAJ: The rest of the world knows what we have and this country doesn't. It's the only original art form we have. Everything else is borrowed from Europe. And people that put jazz tags on things that aren't jazz.
KA: That's a drag. Well jazz festivals all over the worldquote, unquote jazz festivals all over the worlddo that, too. They have R&B.
AAJ: So you call those music festivals, not jazz festivals. That's being honest about it.
AAJ: Like the one in Rochester.
KA: That's a great festival.
AAJ: Well, their leading act last year was Jerry Lee Lewis.
KA: Oh, my.
AAJ: And they had the nerve to call it a "jazz festival"? Call it a music festival and you can incorporate any kind of music you want. That to me is dishonest
KA: Right. It's false advertising.
AAJ: And then it confuses people because there are a lot of people that really don't know what jazz is.
KA: Right. I feel like the more exposure people get to jazz, the more popular it's going to be. It seems like a no-brainer. It's just that whatever's shoved down people's throats, they're going to think that's the next best thing because it's advertisement. But jazz does not get the kind of publicity that it needs.
AAJ: And it's such "feel good" music.
KA: It is. That's exactly right. Because it involves. Blues, especially almost, because you're so involved in it, too. And you can witness people on stage, working things out together. You can witness democracy in action on the stage. Even though you have a leader, I feel like it's an open conversation that we're having. It's not just something you do by rote.
AAJ: I feel the same thing about lyrics. Lyrics are a conversation.
KA: Yes. And there's a conversation going on in jazz, too.
AAJ: That's what it's supposed to be. That's what the good ones are in any song and in any genre.
KA: That's right.
AAJ: Do you find any differences in the audiences between here and there?
KA: That's a question I get asked a lot. And I don't know how to answer it. Well, for example, in Japan. My experience has beenfirst of all, it is very popular there and they do value it and that's great. When they're in the act of listening, they are really polite and they don't always applaud like after every solo or whatever. But after the tune is done, they'll give you all they have. Or after the concert is done. But they have a very big thing about honor there. That's a cultural thing. And that's what I notice. But, you know, I can get a terribly enthusiastic in a good way audience in Salina, Kansas. It just varies. It varies all over the place. But I was born in Kansas.
AAJ: We're a long, long way from Kansas
AAJ: The British, as an audience. They're sort of reserved.
KA: They may be a little more reserved perhaps. But when you're talking to them on a break or signing CDs, and they're not reserved at all.
AAJ: That's something else, but as an...
KA:....as an audience, yes, exactly. It has to do with the culture.
AAJ: Yes. They just don't let loose.
KA: In the same way.
AAJ: But one on one it's different. Americans hoot and holler and whistle and they'll give you standing ovation for anything.
KA: We were just in Switzerland, to name a culture that seems to sort of reserved, but those audiences were tremendously enthusiastic during, after and everything. I was really surprised. We played a club there called Maryann's Jazz Club in Bern for a week. And it was an amazingly enthusiastic crowd. It was surprising.
AAJ: You played in one place for a week? Nowadays that' doesn't happen too often.
KA: We were there. well, we have long-standing gigs in places like Seattle at Jazz Alley, Birdland, Dizzy's, Blue Note, the Iridiuma week long thing we've done. Catalina's in Los Angeles. Several places throughout the country there's still a week long performance.
AAJ: And you've worked in Chicago?
KA: Chicago, usually at the Green Mill, which is a whole 'nother story.
AAJ: Tell me about the Green Mill.
KA: The Green Mill is a trip. And I have been working at the Green Mill ever since my first CD in 1990, or whatever because I called Dave Jemillo and just asked for a gig, sent him a CD and he liked it. And after the first weekend we played there, he said, "We have a lifetime verbal contract and you come back." And it has been that way ever since.
I love playing the Green Mill. It's not a concert hall. It's a dive. And it's funky as hell and I mean dive in a good way because, first of all, he knows how to run that place. The sound is excellent. He has a wonderful sound man who is great with us. And it's just a gratifying musical experience to go there. And the crowd is right up with you. They have Big Al at the door who looks like a biker. Tattoos, bald. And he'll walk around and say, "Shut up, she's singin'!" So it's a great club.
AAJ: Yes, because that club has a musical history and I 've seen pictures of the place.
KA: Right. They the Al Capone days and all that. They have a whole network underground, I've heard. I haven't seen it, but they have underground networks, tunnels from the speakeasy days.
AAJ: I haven't been there, but I lived in Chicago for three years in the days of Mister Kelly's and the London House and the near North side jazz clubs.
KA: Boy, they need more.
AAJ: Well, New York has gotten better.
KA: New York has. It keeps crowding up.
AAJ: There are more rooms that are doing jazz. And the Metropolitan which is strictly a singers' club. I'm a New Yorker so I remember the original Birdland which is still there, by the way, It is downstairs. It is now a "gentlemen's club" called Flashdance. But the room is still there physically.
KA: Really, that's interesting.
AAJ: Speaking of New York, I find, too, that the singers in New York are very supportive of each other. They come to see you.
KA: I agree. It's a very good thing. It's healthy.
AAJ: It is healthy. And that's the great thing about jazz. It's not dog eat dog in jazz. People help each other out.
KA: Yes. Well, it's definitely mutual respect for each other's work. Because if you're in this for a while, you're serious about it because it's not a walk in the park.
AAJ: No. And it's certainly not a way to get rich.
KA: No. But I feel very lucky. I mean, right now, I struggle but I feel lucky I've been able to make a good living at what I love. And so many people say that when you're signing afterwards or talking to folks after the concert. "You're so lucky you get to do what you do that you love. I wish I would have stuck with piano."
I hear so many people who lament the fact that didn't stick with music. Not that they have to do it professionally, but to have it in their lives. And they can see how much fun we're usually having with it. It's physically pretty demanding and the road especially. But singing two full sets, sometimes three a night, is demanding. It's fun and it gives back to you but sometimes you have days where it takes a little more away than it gives back to you. It's just the way life is.
AAJ: Also the wonderful thing about it is you get an immediate feedback which can energize you.
KA: It's true.
AAJ: Have you recorded a live album yet?
KA: No, I have not. That's possible down the road. There are some cuts, certain cuts, but not a whole project.
AAJ: How do you feel about doing that?
KA: I would love to sometime. It's a whole different thing. It's challenging for the sound and everything. You have to pick a venue that's appropriate; that makes it easier in that way so you're not fixing more than it's worthif you know what I'm saying. Yes, so that's my hope down the road.
AAJ: I wondered because eventually everybody does one.
KA: People ask that a lot because they're interested than recording session in a studio.
AAJ: You can always fix things when you're doing it in a studio, but live, there's more risk. But that's the fun of it.
KA: Absolutely. Taking chances.
AAJ: What about your writing? Are you going to keep up writing?
KA: Yes. My friend Chris Caswell, again who worked so hard with us on "Footprints" and also wrote a couple of the English lyrics for Imaginawe're doing some writing together. It's something I like to do. But often I think, there's so many great songs out there, why would I put one of my mediocre things out there. But you got to get over that.
Well, one of my goals is to do one of my original songs on my gigs and just make myself do it. Imagina has been out for a while. I love it but I'm always out there to promote our music, whatever we're doing. But I'd like to include other things now too because the more you play them live when you get into the session in the studio, the more comfortable it's going to feel.
AAJ: Because you've lived with the material. But also in the studio, in jazz it never goes the same way twice. And you can never play anything wrong.
KA: I can!!
AAJ: No, because if you play it wrong, you do it twice and then it's right. If you played it wrong the first time, you play it again the same wrong way and everybody thinks that's the way it goes.
KA: But the jazz audience is pretty educated mostly. And that's a good thing. They know.
Karrin Allyson, By Request: The Best of Karrin Allyson (Concord, 2009)
Karrin Allyson, Imagina: Songs of Brasil (Concord, 2008)
Karrin Allyson, Footprints (Concord, 2006)
Karrin Allyson, Wild For You (Concord, 2004)
Karrin Allyson, In Blue (Concord, 2002)
Karrin Allyson, Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane (Concord, 2001)
Karrin Allyson, From Paris To Rio (Concord, 1999)
Karrin Allyson, Daydream(Concord, 1996)
Karrin Allyson, Collage (Concord, 1996)
Karrin Allyson, Azure-Te (Concord, 1994)
Karrin Allyson, Sweet Home Cookin' (Concord, 1993)
Karrin Allyson, I Didn't Know About You (Concord, 1992)
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