Karrin Allyson Quintet
D’Mitriou’s Jazz Alley
When I think of Kansas City—specifically the jazz that came out of that city in the 1930s—I think of Count Basie and his big band; I think of Lester Young and his solo on “Doggin’ Around”; I think of cutting contests and gutbucket blues and tight ensemble riffs. Mostly, I think of how jazz, as it migrated north to urban centers like K.C., blossomed from a provincial folk music into a slick, refined expression of urbanity.
Those are the qualities that, generally speaking, come to mind when I think of the kind of jazz that was once associated with Kansas City. I do not think of a female vocalist with a penchant for sambas, bossa novas, and singing in Portugese.
Enter Karrin Allyson, the assured and accomplished young vocalist from—you guessed it—Kansas City. Allyson has been on the jazz scene for quite some time now, quietly making a series of killer albums on the Concord label. Her repertoire is impressively vast—she can move from Jobim to Bud Powell to Lennon and McCartney and make it sound perfectly logical. She can scat with considerable aplomb, navigating even the most tortuous bebop tunes with poise and surety. Her interpretations of ballads are pared down, devoid of ornament, yet always spellbinding. Her animated stage presence recalls Betty Carter without resorting to mimicry. With all of these attributes, it’s a wonder that Ms. Allyson is only now getting the attention she’s deserved for most of the past decade.
My first exposure to Karrin came just over three years ago, when she opened up for pianist Benny Green at D’Mitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle. On that occasion, she was accompanied by only a bassist and guitarist, save the tiny shaker-egg she broke out for the sambas and bossa novas. As I remember, she dipped heavily into her South America bag that evening, covering tunes like “So Danco Samba” and “Corcovado”. She also displayed an impressive fluency in the bebop language. And she did an exquisite interpretation of “Nature Boy” that I’ve not since forgotten.
Allyson recently revisited Jazz Alley for a short four-day appearance, this time backed by a quartet consisting of drummer Mark Ivester, bassist Jeff Johnson, pianist Paul Smith and guitarist Danny Embrey. (Ivester and Johnson are local musicians who had never played with Allyson; Smith and Embrey are Kansas City natives who gig and record with Karrin regularly). Much of Allyson’s repertoire has remained static, which is certainly not a complaint because she performs it so well. It was a treat to see how she interpreted certain songs in the context of a larger group.
Allyson began the set with a medium-tempo reading of “Moon Ray,” a tune that was a part of Ella Fitzgerald’s early repertoire; and in true Fitzgeraldian fashion, Allyson scatted her way, spiritedly, through several choruses. She sped things up on the next tune, a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants take on “How High the Moon,” another Fitzgerald staple. Interestingly, Allyson began the song by scatting the melody to Charlie Parker’s Ornithology, which, jazz musicians will note, is based on the chord changes to “How High the Moon.”
Allyson and quartet continued with a series of sambas and bossa novas, some I’d heard her perform earlier, others more obscure. The highlights included “Samba Without Sadness,” an enchanting and upbeat tune penned by an unknown Portugese writer; “If You Go Away,” a wistful French ballad; and the old Jobim standby “Corcovado (Quiet Nights)”. Allyson is an able interpreter of foreign tongues—her Portugese is elastic yet precise, and her French is refreshing and playful without being kitschy (think of Edith Piaf with serious jazz chops). She’s also a good storyteller. Her relaxed phrasing creates a strong yet unobtrusive narrative flow; and she set the context for many of the tunes with vivid imagery: “Imagine you’re flying into Rio,” she began before settling into “Corcovado.”
Allyson even took the piano chair for a couple of tunes. The first was her own “Sweet Home Cookin’ Man,” a twelve-bar blues that found Allyson attesting to the benefits of having a man eager to cook for her. On an unidentified Jay Leonhart tune (based on a vamp in G minor), she even got a bit funky on the keys, indulging in a bluesy solo with block chords that would’ve made Bobby Timmons himself take notice.
Allyson is most effective when it comes to creating ambience. When she’s on stage, she exudes a kind of soft, muted electricity; she captivates her audience subtly, almost without notice. I suppose it’s because she’s just so comfortable with the material she’s interpreting: Whether it’s the Beatles or Bud Powell or some obscure Portugese tune, Karrin Allyson makes it look easy. Literary critic Harold Bloom has hypothesized that the great writers achieve their greatness precisely in their ability to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I’d hypothesize that Karrin Allyson’s personal aesthetic is something similar to this. I’m not comparing her with Shakespeare; rather, I’m just saying that she has that unique ability to make the time-worn material sound fresh, and the more obscure selections quite palatable. Karrin Allyson hits you with an eclecticism that, defying its nature, makes you feel right at home.