Truth, Tradition & Karrin Allyson

Mathew Bahl BY

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"That's the goal," explains jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson. "I think it's important to be honest when you're singing and playing and not to sound like someone else. We all have influences and people we love, but we are own people."

Nearly every aspiring jazz singer talks about finding his or her unique voice. However, by defining individuality in terms of authenticity rather than dissimilarity, Karrin Allyson has managed to achieve that ideal. In the process, she has also come to terms with the vocal jazz legacy. Many contemporary singers seem trapped in the shadow of this music's storied history while others run away from or reject the past. Karrin Allyson, on the other hand, embraces the jazz tradition but does not defer to it. As she herself says, "If you're doing a Duke Ellington tune; have a little respect. But at the same time, take it out and be creative." Allyson's ability to walk that fine line makes her one of the freshest, most exciting singers to have emerged from the vocal jazz explosion of the 1990s.

Of course, having a lovely voice and being a superb musician hasn't exactly hurt either. Allyson's light, flexible alto has a slight rasp that gives her timbre distinctiveness and texture. She moves effortlessly throughout her modest range, even at breakneck tempos, and always stays impeccably in tune. Her diction is flawless and her phrasing is conversational. Having cut her teeth on the Kansas City jazz scene, it should be no surprise that Allyson swings hard. She is also an impressive bop-based improviser who both scats and improvises within the lyrics. As a classically trained pianist who still occasionally accompanies herself, Allyson also understands the importance of listening. "Jazz is a conversation you're having with musicians," she explains. "It's about listening to what everybody else is doing and responding to it. I think developing your ear is as important in this art form as developing your instrument."

Karrin Allyson's sharp ear and sensitivity to her fellow musicians is especially evident in her wordless improvising. Arguably the most interesting scat singer of her generation, Allyson avoids the clich's that have dogged the form for years. "I don't particularly like "sha do be do be" kind of syllables for scat singing," she explains. "The sounds should be idiomatic to whatever tune you're doing." Instead of trying to imitate a horn, Allyson thinks like a horn player. Whether its improvising new melodies or singing bebop lines in unison or harmony with an instrumentalist, her scat choruses always have a clear musical purpose. At the same time, her wordless improvising has none of the sterile, academic quality that mars so much modern scat singing.

Despite her affinity for scatting, Karrin Allyson is not a vocal abstractionist. She has a deep appreciation for the meaning of words, and she handles lyrics with admirable intelligence and insight. "I think jazz singing encompasses every emotion under the sun," she explains. Indeed, given the somber quality of some modern jazz singers, listeners may be surprised at how much fun Allyson's records can be. That's not to say she still can't break your heart. Allyson's quietly intense ballad performances are a testament to her belief in understatement. "The listeners know if it's for real or not," she says. Allyson describes her ballad approach as, "not as cool as maybe a June Christy... but less dramatic than a cabaret singer." She rarely chooses to reach for big emotions or high drama in her ballads, but instead explores more ambiguous concepts like hope, regret, and apprehension. "Bittersweet is a nice aspect to have in a lyric," she observes. "I also like irony."

While her style is clearly inside the jazz tradition, it is difficult to find one specific reference point in the vocal jazz canon. Carmen McRae ("I love her sense of humor and her edge") and Ella Fitzgerald ("she's so pure and she swings so hard") are clearly big influences. Allyson also expresses admiration for Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Mark Murphy, Shirley Horn and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. She points out that she has also learned an enormous amount from listening to instrumentalists. "I love Bill Evans. I love Clifford Brown. I love to listen to Charlie Parker and Dizzy [Gillespie] is wonderful."

However, Allyson says her "idol" is Portland-based jazz singer Nancy King. A fearless improviser with an eccentric, in the best sense of the word, repertoire, King has built a substantial reputation over the last few decades despite having been virtually ignored by jazz record labels and the jazz press. 'she is, I think, one of the best singers that ever walked the planet."

One lesson Karrin Allyson learned from all her influences is about the endless possibilities of this music. "Jazz singing," she notes, "is a huge world in which to choose interpretation and material. You can take any tune and do it in a jazz way." Which is exactly what Allyson does. She estimates that she knows "probably a couple thousand tunes." However, it misses the point to call Allyson's repertoire "eclectic." Her style draws together nearly all of the major musical ideas that have shaped vocal jazz in the last 80 years and, in the process, redefines existing notions of "traditional" jazz singing.

Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto and Frank Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim ensured that the intersection of Brazilian and American popular music would not simply be another musical fad. The songs of Jobim, Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento may not be part of the Great American Songbook, but they are certainly an indispensable part of the standard repertoire. Allyson's first five CDs all contained Brazilian tunes and she immersed herself in the music for 1999's From Paris to Rio. She notes that audiences respond strongly to this repertoire. "There's an exoticism to the material. It takes them to another place. It's not only the rhythms, though I think that's the first thing that hits the listener."

The Brazilian songbook has also held an especially strong appeal for American vocalists. Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mark Murphy, Rosemary Clooney and Susannah McCorkle have all devoted entire albums to the music. Allyson believes part of that interest comes from the challenge presented by the repertoire. "It's quite complicated stuff," she says, 'sort of deceptively simple." However, Allyson handles it with real sophistication usually singing the material's original Portuguese lyrics. She cites the legendary Brazilian singers Elis Regina and Nara Le?o as important influences. Although she has explored much of the familiar Jobim catalog, including particularly lovely versions of "Insensatez" and "Corcovado," on From Paris to Rio Allyson dug deeper into the Brazilian tradition for material rarely heard north of the equator.

As the album title suggests, From Paris to Rio also explored Allyson's interest in French chanson. The standard repertoire has co-opted a number of Gallic melodies over the years including "Autumn Leaves" and "I Wish You Love," and even Pops recorded "La Vie En Rose." However, Allyson, who speaks fluent French, has not had to limit herself to just those melodies with English lyrics. "I'm in love with other languages," she notes.

Allyson's ear for a good song has also allowed her to successfully pull material from contemporary pop into her repertoire. Jazz musicians and singers have been recording Rock Era pop for over 35 years. And while we are justifiably haunted by the memory of Ella Fitzgerald's "Hey Jude" and Frank Sinatra's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," subsequent generations of singers have shown that this material can be made to work in a jazz context. In the age of Eminem, Destiny's Child and J-Lo, tunes by the Beatles, Randy Newman, Janis Ian and Bonnie Raitt should not be seen as radical song choices. Allyson certainly doesn't treat them that way. In fact, she seems to select pop tunes for the same reason she chooses all her material " quality. She understands that having been written by Billy Joel doesn't change the fact that "And So It Goes" is a great song.

Instrumental tunes, done either as scat or vocalese, make up a significant part of her repertoire. Musically, her interest is in the composers of the bop era. She has performed tunes by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Gigi Gryce, Bud Powell and Clifford Brown. The relationship between standard tunes and their counterparts from the bop universe also intrigues Allyson. So she sings "How High the Moon" with "Ornithology," "Indiana" with "Donna Lee" and "It Could Happen to You" with "Fried Bananas." "I think it's important [when improvising] to start with the original melody," observes Allyson.

Some aspects of the vocal jazz tradition constitute a smaller portion of Allyson's work. Although not a Blues singer per se, her singing is informed by the idiom and she occasionally performs an up-tempo Blues. Similarly, Allyson is not afraid to cross the Berlin Wall that separates vocal jazz and cabaret in order to bring back a good tune. While she is interested in songwriting, Allyson has largely avoided recording her own compositions. "I perform some of my tunes live, but I'd like to work on more original work. I have a lot of unfinished stuff. The problem is that I want them to end as good as they started and not just cop out in some trite thing. But then again," she laughs, "there are quite a few trite standards."

No matter how diverse the vocal jazz tradition may be, ultimately, we tend to judge jazz singers by the common yardstick of the standard repertoire. Allyson's "book" includes many of the Tin Pan Alley songs of the "20s, "30s and "40s, show tunes and film songs of the "50s and "60s and miscellaneous post "60s songs that have become vocal jazz standards. She sings them all with great style and an unassuming authority. Her recordings of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "No Moon At All," 'some Other Time" and "Everything Must Change" are definitive. While her versions of "Azure T"," "Daydream," "I Love Paris," "Like Someone in Love," and 'stompin' at the Savoy" are probably the finest recordings of those tunes in a generation. Allyson's knowledge of the jazz tradition allows her to avoid recycling familiar ideas while at the same time retaining the qualities that initially made the standard so appealing. "I think it is important to adhere to a certain historical realness," says Allyson, "but if you can do something better or at least improve on it, then do it." She observes that, "I'm a little less fearsome [about singing well known standards] than I used to be."

While her 15 years as a professional musician have bolstered Karrin Allyson's confidence and sense of her own identity, they have not diminished her passion for jazz or her ability to be moved by the music. Consider her latest CD, her seventh for Concord Jazz, Ballads " Remembering John Coltrane, scheduled for release in May 2001. The genesis of the album is not a clever record company executive, but rather Allyson's own gut level reaction to John Coltrane's Ballads. "I have loved [that] album for years," she explains. "It really spoke to me." Then one day, as she was listening to the record, Allyson had a realization. "I thought these are such great tunes and obviously people have done some of them here and there forever, but I would love to sing it down, starting with 'say It Over and Over," and go through the whole list."

John Coltrane recorded the original Ballads in late 1962 at the suggestion of Impulse! President Bob Thiele. While it has come to be seen as one of Coltrane's least adventurous outings, Ballads is also now regarded as one of his most unabashedly beautiful records. Coltrane himself must have appreciated the unique relationship between a singer and a ballad since the following year he recorded another now-classic all-ballad album, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. "I love that record," notes Allyson of the Coltrane/Hartman collaboration. "It's the same kind of approach only theirs is the original deal."

Before proceeding with the Ballads project, Allyson sought and received Alice Coltrane's blessing. She also added "Naima," "Why Was I Born?" and "Every Time We Say Goodbye" to fill out what was, even in the LP era, a rather short play list. In keeping with the spirit of the original album, Allyson decided to use only a trio and saxophonists. She recruited James Williams on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and Bob Berg, Steve Wilson and James Carter on horns. "I had a wonderful time doing [the CD]. I love these songs so much and I love the band that was on it." Allyson points out that the album is not really a "tribute" disc and that the point of the record was not to replicate Coltrane's phrasing. However, she does hope that Ballads " Remembering John Coltrane will encourage fans to revisit or discover the original album.

Like many musicians born in the 1960s and after, Allyson understands the power of a single record. Often a new listener's love affair with jazz begins with that first defining album. For Karrin Allyson it was an old copy of Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley she heard while attending the University of Nebraska in the early 1980s. Although she was a classical piano major, jazz quickly captured her imagination. "I fell in love with all the possibilities this music brings," she explains.

After college, Allyson had a rather modest start to her career. "The first jobs I got," she recalls, "were in restaurants doing piano/vocal stuff." Like Carmen McRae and Jeri Southern before her, Allyson began to move away from the keyboard. "It was a gradual thing," she says. "I'd add a bassist; then a drummer, then I'd realize I'd really like to stand up so I would hire a pianist. I never said "I'm going to stop playing."" Allyson still sits down at the piano for a few tunes during most every performance. "I wouldn't trade the ability to play for anything. That's my first love."

Allyson eventually relocated to Kansas City where she surrounded herself with some of the city's finest instrumentalists. For almost a decade, Allyson has worked with a core group of Kansas City musicians including pianist Paul E. Smith, drummer Todd Strait, bassist Bob Bowman, alto saxophonist Kim Park, and guitarists Danny Embry and Rod Fleeman. "They're the best," enthuses Allyson. "I can't say enough about them."

Those musicians all appeared on Allyson's first CD, which she had to borrow money to self-produce. "I didn't know what a label was at this point," she says. "I just wanted something to sell on the bandstand to get the word out." A woman from San Francisco attended one of Allyson's shows in Kansas City and placed an order. "Her check and my CDs passed in the air. She ordered two of them and sent one to [San Francisco DJ] Stan Dunn at KJAZZ with a letter. She didn't even know him." Dunn got such a strong response from his listeners that he forwarded Allyson's CD to Concord Records President Carl Jefferson. Equally impressed, Jefferson purchased the record from Allyson and released I Didn't Know About You on the Concord Jazz label in 1993.

Unlike many jazz singers, Allyson had the good fortune to make her debut for one of the largest independent jazz record labels in the world. Despite undergoing some rough times following Carl Jefferson's death, Concord Records has remained very supportive of Allyson's efforts. "I feel very fortunate to be at this label," says Allyson. "I'm proud to have been signed by [Carl Jefferson] himself, and I have a great respect for the new President, Glen Barros. I think he's a quality person and that cannot be said for every record company executive."

Concord's vast distribution has allowed Allyson to take her music all over the world. She has played clubs and jazz festivals throughout the United States, Japan and Europe. "I love performing. I love touring." However, to keep her performances fresh, Allyson selects a brand new playlist for each set. "I never repeat stuff," she says.

Having paid her dues and built her craft, Karrin Allyson seems poised to enter a new phase of her career. "I've been doing this on my own for so long—booking myself, promoting myself," she explains. "Recently, I hired a new manager, and she is taking it up a notch in the promotional aspect and imaging which is not my bag." Allyson doesn't subscribe to the notion that poverty and obscurity are requirements of this art form. "I want to be as successful as possible," she laughs. "I work very hard, I love this music very much, and I want to take it as far as I possibly can."

Only time will tell how far that will be. However, one thing is for certain; the jazz vocal tradition could not be in safer hands.


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