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.

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