Geri Allen: Smart and Wonderful

Geri-Allen-2-by-Dean-C.-Jones-copyGeri Allen is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose influence runs wide and deep, but somehow, has not become as well-known as it ought to be. She’s a pianist with a resume that begins with a serious educational foundation: a master’s degree in ethnomusicology that has served her well (easy for me to see this because I’m approaching her life’s work some 35 years into a very good story). Her professional work begins with Mary Wilson and the Supremes in the early 1980s, and Brooklyn’s M-Base movement not long after (here, she established a reputation beside Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and other talented players). M-Base was a kind of updating of a jazz form, a structured modernist approach to improvisation. In 1988, she recorded a wonderful album entitled “Etudes” with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, followed by several more trio records with her two extraordinary (now, sadly, gone) creative partners, including Segments and Live at the Village Vanguard. (The best discography I could find appears on Wikipedia, part of a more complete story worth reading.)

UnknownThe awards began to roll in. Allen was in and out of the remaining avant-garde, which sounds much less radical now than in 1996 when she recorded “Hidden Man” with Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum. In fact, by 1999, she was sounding very comfortable in a commercial setting, recording her popular CD, The Gathering, with Wallace Roney on flugelhorn and trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums, and others whose names are well-known from mainstream jazz records. A 2010 record, “Flying Toward the Sound,” made it to the top of many critic’s best-of-the-year lists.

So that’s the beginning of the story. A very solid player, well-connected and well-regarded, a talented composer, comfortable in the mainstream and in the more experimental forms of jazz. Somewhat unusual to find a female musician in that role, but things are changing, and, well, it’s about time.

For much of this past summer, Ms. Allen has served as the Artistic Director of a special project at the NJPAC, New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center (and center of cultural life and city rebuilding) in Newark, New Jersey. The project is an All-Female Jazz Residency with a wonderful array of inspiring special guests including Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Carmen Lundy on voice, and more. Ms. Allen has been Professor Allen for some time now; she is the Director of Jazz Studies for her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. She recently received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. She’s got the performance chops, the compositional excellence and nowadays, it would be fair to say that Geri Allen is one of our nation’s most distinguished jazz educators.

Photo by Dean C. Jones

Photo by Dean C. Jones

As impressive as her professional accomplishments may be, there’s nothing quite like listening. Her latest work, recorded in 2012 and released last year, takes the pianist back to her home town, Detroit, Michigan (actually, she was born in nearby Pontiac but grew up in Detroit). Grand River Avenue was the big street that she crossed when she was old enough to do so. She describes “three years of intensive training by master teachers and Detroit artists in residence” at Cass Tech, on Grand River Avenue, then one of “the nation’s premiere high schools.” The CD entitled “Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations” is the third in a trilogy that began with “Flying Toward the Sound,” and continued with “A Child is Born.” In this case, the liner notes call her work “the new classical music” and state, quite reasonably and truthfully, that the music on the CD is “an exquisitely beautiful collection” based, largely, upon the Motown spirit. There are songs by Steve Wonder (“That Girl”), Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), and Marvin Gaye (“Save the Children,” and “Inner City Blues”) and Holland-Dozier-Holland (“Baby I Need Your Lovin’”) but this is not an album of jazz versions of Motown standards. Instead, it is an intricate meditation on the musical themes and ideas that those composers expressed long ago.

Unknown-2Geri Allen has been one of those artists that I’ve wanted to know more about. Now that I’ve written this article, now that I’ve done some concentrated listening, I’m realizing that I am just beginning to understand what she’s all about. The latest album is elegant and wonderful, soulful and reflective, sophisticated and consistently interesting, but my collection is now woefully incomplete. I have listened to the two predecessors in the trilogy, but I want them for my very own. The same is true for the work she did with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, and for the work she did in 2010 with her group, Timeline.

Another discovery. I keep falling in love. There is no better way to listen to music.

BTW: Don’t miss this NPR conversation between two beloved jazz pianists: Geri Allen and Marian McPartland.

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