Karrin Allyson: Has Jazz, Will Travel

Marcia Hillman By

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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.

Karrin Allyson

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 method—there 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 bands—rock 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.

Karrin AllysonKA: 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 City—it'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.

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