Karrin Allyson Live at Birdland


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Karrin Allyson
New York, NY
May 19, 2007

The time is 9 P.M. at Birdland, and jazz singer Karrin Allyson is about to open a four-night engagement at the famed Manhattan club. The musicians are all gathered together, and the singer is amongst friends with whom she's been performing since her Kansas City days and with whom she made her debut recording on Concord Records in 1993. Although she has recorded with renowned artists such as Gary Burton and Randy Brecker, tonight's old friends include guitarist Rod Fleeman and drummer Todd Strait along with bassist David Weiss. There's a bit of added excitement about tonight's sets since vibraphonist Steve Nelson, normally a member of the Dave Holland Band, will be joining the Allyson accompaniment team for the next few days.

Born in Great Bend, Kansas before moving with her family in Omaha, Nebraska, Karrin Allyson later relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1987 with a degree in piano and has been living in New York for the past seven years.

As Allyson takes the stage at Birdland, the audience may not be aware that the singer's carefully chosen set list will draw upon a number of the strengths that make her performances and albums so unique and, in fact, will include a series of songs from perhaps her most ambitious album, the Grammy-nominated Footprints (Concord, 2006).

Beginning with a mid-tempo version of Ray Noble's "The Touch of Your Lips," Allyson falls easily into the pacing of the tune, then makes a seamless transition into a scat delivery. There's scarcely a break between the Noble lyric and the singer's own inventions. Nelson vamps behind her, as if he's been there before, and Fleeman takes a relaxed guitar solo. For her second number, Allyson shows just why she's considered one of the best interpreters of Brazilian music with her version of Jobim's "So Tinha De Ser Com Voce." Her Portuguese is flawless, in a way reminding me of the work the late Susannah McCorkle did for Concord during her long run on the label. Nelson and Fleeman provide exhilarating solos. Then, the vocalist slips into a bluesy performance of Mose Allison's "Lost Mind," on which Nelson shows the influence of Milt Jackson.

The next portion of the set draws from the Footprints album, and Allyson takes the time to explain the concept to the audience. Using the format most popularly adopted by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross beginning in the late 1950s, Allyson and her collaborators (notably composer Chris Caswell) wrote original lyrics for jazz standards composed largely in the 1950s and 60s. There are some complications to consider in this process (e.g. Hank Mobley's "Turnaround" becomes " I Found The Turnaround" while Wayne Shorter's classic "Footprints" —which already has different sets of lyrics written for it—becomes "Follow the Footprints"; the Adderley Brothers' instrumental, "Teaneck," which appeared on the 1961 album with Nancy Wilson, now has lyrics added and a name change: "I Can't Say"; John Coltrane's "Lazy Bird" becomes "Lightning"; and the Dizzy Gillespie classic "Con Alma" morphs into "Something Worth Waiting For." While all of the preceding lyrics were penned by Caswell, Karrin Allyson contributed her own words to the infectious Duke Jordan tune "Jordu." Having been through this process before, as a jazz afficionado I've long concluded that a catchy lyric written to a durable instrumental jazz standard is a step upward.

Allyson then pays a respectful visit to her successful album Ballads: A Remembrance of John Coltrane. While the album was able to incorporate saxophonists James Carter and Bob Berg to channel the spirit of Coltrane, they were not essential to her interpretation of "Over and Over Again," a song intimately associated with the tenor giant. Of particular note is a sensitive guitar solo from Fleeman. The pace then picks up with Allyson's interpretation of Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'," with Steve Nelson injecting some four-mallet soul jazz. Fleeman follows with a long solo, and bassist David Weiss is also afforded a solo opportunity. The first set concludes, and one is left with the pleasure of having heard how well Nelson fits in with the regular group. It's been years since we've heard him in this type of setting, recalling his work in the late 1980s, as leader and sideman, on labels like Criss Cross, Red and Sunnyside.

Following the performance, I pose a number of random questions to the singer, hoping to gain some insight into her thought about her own art and a number of jazz-related matters.

Whose idea was it to go ahead with the Coltrane ballad album? While the project was Allyson's own concept, the singer stresses that she always relies on the help and influence of her musical colleagues as well as her friends and family as opposed to living in a vacuum.

What about Allyson's stunning version of "Samba Saravah" on her 1999 From Rio to Paris album? How was that tune chosen, having been recorded by only a handful of singers (mostly Brazilian) over the decades? The song, the only samba featured in the 1966 Francis Lai film A Man and and A Woman, was composed by Baden Powell, Vinicius de Moraes and French actor/singer Pierre Barouh, who sang the French lyrics in the film. Allyson explained that she was introduced to the song during the late 1990s by a mutual friend and guitarist Fleeman and welcomed it as a natural fit since it reminded her of "Live for Life" from a subsequent Lai film. In the post-Millennium bossa nova world, Bebel Gilberto has recorded "Saravah" under the title "Samba de Bencao."

Finally, I ask if the singer was disappointed by the reaction of the jazz press to her "singer/songwriter" album, Wild For You. Karrin's response was quite interesting: it's clear she gives a lot of thought to addressing this issue. Her response is that these tunes always go over with a live audience and are frequently requested by her fans. She further suggests that the culprits here may be the "jazz police," who likely have not given the album the chance it deserved. She adds that it is a jazz album albeit not with necessarily "jazz tunes," those earlier standards comprising the so-called "Great American Songbook."

I'd have to second that. Wild For You is a reminder of the power and adaptability of great popular songs of any era, including material from the James Taylor/Cat Stevens/Jimmy Webb repertory, especially when served by a spot-on interpretation of a song like Joni Mitchell's "All I Want," on which Allyson fully captures the basic essence of the song's melodic-lyrical story. Moreover, when was the last time that anyone covered a worthy song like Melissa Manchester's hit "I Got Eyes"?

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