Interview: Geri Allen (Part 2)


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Pianist Geri Allen loves drama. Whenever she opens a song, she sets the mood with dynamic intrigue. Whether the song is an original ballad like Flying Toward the Sound or the churning Soul Heir, Geri splashes the ear with sparkling beauty—instinctively knowing that to win audiences' hearts, you have to engage their ears fast with colorful surprises. Even on Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life, you sense the curtain going up on both the familiar and the new, which she follows with skillful song deconstruction and modernist rebuilding. And in each case Geri packs quite a punch with explosive ideas and roiling technique. This isn't cocktail hour stuff.

Geri will bring all of this pianistic power, surprise and cunning on Saturday night at New York's 92YTribeca at 200 Hudson St. in Manhattan. She's on the same bill as Jason Moran & The Bandwagon. Tickets ($25) are still available. For information and ticket purchases, go here. Or call 212-601-1000.

In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Geri, we continue our conversation about her singular approach to jazz, how she magically engages audiences, and her participation in Terri Lyne Carrington's Grammy-nominated The Mosaic Project... 

JazzWax: What goes through your mind when you're performing?

Geri Allen: When everything is going just right, my mind is clear. I'm not thinking about anything. I'm very alert, and I'm responding to what's around me. But there's no thinking. It's a spiritual flow.

JW: What do you think makes some people uncomfortable about music that's unfamiliar?

GA: I don't know that I agree with you there. The music may be more complex and involved than most of the music they're used to hearing. But they know what it's all about. Audiences aren't always given credit for being emotionally aware of what's going on. I've found that most people are quite capable of internalizing emotions that are stimulated by music and art, even if the music isn't immediately familiar.

JW: This internalizing starts young, doesn't it?

GA: Absolutely. Children have access to music at a young age and understand the emotional side of music without having to be taught. Children as early as preschool age are exposed to a wide range of creative experiences and fully grasp the excitement and the message of the arts. Through the instant reactions of young children, you sense music's potential. The excitement that develops early never really leaves us. It's always there.

JW: Do you find that audiences have a natural, spiritual reaction to your music?

GA: Yes. It's not necessarily about literal comprehension. It's much deeper. It's about participating in the experience of what they see or hear. We all have that. The question is how open people are to getting back in touch with it. I think the initial fears people have about music are a result of the misconceptions created by labels. When people listen to music that hasn't been pre-described, the passion and art behind the music is easier for them to absorb and accept.

JW: Which brings us back to our inner child.

GA: For young children, exciting music and art gives them a sense of entitlement. When they hear different sounds and sonics, the experience connects with their feelings. They're naturally stimulated. People who have access to my music tend to feel the same way—emotionally. [Photo of Geri Allen by Antonio Baiano]

JW: Is exposing people to your music becoming harder to do?

GA: What do you mean?

JW: Record stores are gone, and radio's mission no longer seems to be instructive—a knowledgeable DJ turning audiences on to great new, exciting things.

GA: Access has indeed changed. But in all fairness, there's now a whole new world of access on YouTube. You can pull up this amazing body of video. It's a different level of access today. Technology makes this possible. [Photo of Geri Allen by Dave Kaufman]

JW: Do you feel you are trying to form a bridge between fans of traditional jazz and your lyrical, freer form?

GA: That's interesting. What do you mean by a bridge?

JW: Your music is free in its feel, but to me there's this tenderness within the excitement. It's not solely percussive music. It's soulfully dramatic.

GA: Much of this has to do with the interactions between all of the musicians on stage, and between the musicians and the audience. I react to audiences based on their reactions to my music. They feed off each other.  Without people in the room, without the connectedness, musicians don't find the experience nearly as enjoyable.

JW: For example?

GA: When an audience is fully with us, a different kind of projection is created. I'm always trying to express how I feel organically. It's truthful and honest, and it moves me. I'm always hopeful that audiences will join me that way.

JW: You also incorporate tap dance in your performances.

GA: Having dancers in the show is part of the full experience. Maurice Chestnut, for example, is a young dancer and musician, and his dancing adds to the musical experience. To see him helps remind audiences that this music is communal. It is for me. Of course, all musicians have their own way of looking at what's important and what they want audiences to come away with.

JW: Is there a distinctly female perspective to your music?

GA: Not really. My trio [drummer Terri Lyne Carrington [pictured] and bassist Esperanza Spalding] just finished a wonderful run at the Village Vanguard last week. We've been playing as a trio for about a year, and Terri Lyne and Esperanza are two of the greatest musicians I've ever played with. It's a true musical experience and adventure.

JW: How do you mean?

GA: To interact the way we do on stage is a wonderful, embracing feeling. It's fiercely challenging and encourages a fearless exchange of ideas. But each of us acknowledges the roots of the music and has an understanding of the language that allows for the freedom we express. And we're all looking out for each other.

JW: Carrington's The Mosaic Project, which was nominated for a Grammy, certainly represents this.

GA: Absolutely. The Mosaic Project brings together many female musicians and singers with varied backgrounds and musical styles. As a result, the group encompasses an array of styles. But it's not a political recording.

JW: Meaning feminist?

GA: [Laughs] Terri Lyne simply chose these musicians because she loved what they were doing as individuals. It's not a gimmick—some kind of “all female band." We're just musicians she wanted to work with. We're feeling that totally.

JW: But isn't there a female perspective that comes through the music as a result?

GA: I don't' know if there is. We're all looking at life from the perspective of who we are as individuals, not collectively as women. The fact that we're women is just a coincidence, just as it's a coincidence that a group of male musicians would play together. Ultimately, it's about the music, no matter who's up there on stage.

JazzWax tracks: One of my favorite Geri Allen albums is Life of a Song (2004). It's bursting with energy and color. Dig what Geri does with Holdiing Court and Bud Powell's Dance of the Infidels. For some reason, it's not available as a download, which is unfortunate. You'll find the CD at Amazon. Another gem is Geri's TimelessPortraits and Dreams (2006), featuring Wallace Roney (tp), Donald Walden (ts), Geri Allen (p), Ron Carter (b) Jimmy Cobb (d) and Carmen Lundy, George Shirley and the Atlanta Jazz Chorus (vcl). You'll find this at Amazon. The Mosaic Project can be found at iTunes and Amazon.

JazzWax clip: Here's Geri Allen's Holdin' Court from Life of a Song...

And here's what Terri Lyne Carrington's Grammy-nominated The Mosaic Project is all about. Cutting edge stuff, and it grabs you good...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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