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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Three Old Pros

McBrideNow that I’ve written that title, let me check. Christian McBride qualified as a young lion in the early 1990s, but he’s just turned forty. He’s got some old soul, though, perhaps the result of coming up with Bobby Watson’s group, playing with Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson, and Freddy Hubbard. He’s a master of control, a craftsman of the first order and an ideal mate for the his very talented pianist Christian Sands, himself a protege of old soul Billy Taylor. Rounding out the trio is an equally top-rank player, Ulysses Owens, Jr. The name of the CD, on Mack Avenue records, is Out Here, and it’s very satisfying, clean and varied with tight, focused performances. This is jazz composition and performance of the highest caliber. There’s a lot of strong material here, but McBride’s own “Ham Hocks and Cabbage” is especially fine. Oscar Peterson’s “Hallelujah Time” is wistful, pensive, and sweet, nicely played by Sands. Dr. Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker” is another of the CD’s best tracks, mostly because of the strolling, gently swinging motion of McBride’s bass, and its interplay with the Sands’ piano. Best of all: McBride bowing his way through the sentimental melody, “I Have Dreamed.” Selecting individual tracks is fun for me because everything here is so well-constructed and winning, but the funk of “Who’s Making Love” is lots of fun–with McBride doing a bit of showboating on a tune that can easily handle it. If you’re beginning to think about gifts for the holiday season, this is one in the category of “you can’t go wrong.”

So who’s older: pianist Keith Jarrett or vibraphonist Gary Burton? Both musicians started their career in the early 1960s, both have recorded dozens of albums, both are veterans of the jazz fusion era and managed to forge remarkable careers as collaborators.

2200 XJarrett’s work is immediately magical, glorious in its improvisation and sonic exploration. He’s been doing these albums for decades, and yet, every time I put a Jarrett CD on (or, for that matter, an LP), I’m immediately transported into the filagree of his imagination, sipping a drink at an after-hours jazz bar where the player is extraordinary and I just don’t want the evening to ever end. Recorded live at the KKL Luzern Concert Hall, the CD called Somewhere begins with the  mind-bending “Deep Space,” and here, it’s Jarrett’s show with just the right additional color and light provided by double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette; later in the track (the second part is Miles Davis’s “Solar,” their interplay moves the music into an even more interesting exploration, a testament to the extreme skill, experience and love of experimentation that these three musicians consistently offer. So that’s one track, again the first, and again, a favorite. (And I suppose I should mention that the sonic fidelity of these recordings is at such a high level, it would be difficult to imagine a disc sounding any better.) There are some favorite standards here (mine, anyway); it’s difficult for me not to be captivated by Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere;” and the less-often-heard “Stars Fell on Alabama” and the Jimmy van Heusen- Johnny Mercer tune, “I Thought About You.” Ooops–I’m listening to the wrong track–that’s really catchy, and less schticky than I remembered: “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”–well, a little schtick for me. Back to the dark night sky and mystery of “Stars Fell…” and my mind easily drifts to Perseids and stardust. What a lovely album.

GaryBurtonThe old guy in the crowd–Gary Burton is 70 to Keith Jarrett’s 68–opens with a Antonio Sanchez’s rocking drum, instantly establishing a more ambitious, brighter tone for the new Guided Tour, also from Mack Avenue. This is a quartet with Burton leading as one might do with a piano. Sanchez really drives this music. It’s a bigger sound than you would typically expect from a quartet. Burton is leading an exploration not entirely different from Jarrett, but more clearly articulated, more melodic, catchier. The difference is the way that Julian Lage is playing electric guitar, almost as if he’s playing in the style of Burton and his vibes on “Jane Fonda Called Again,” never passive or receding or relaxed, but instead, aggressive and punchy. Yes, they play pretty, too, working the pastoral mood on “Jackalope,”  and the Latin romance of “Helena” (especially nice guitar from Lage on this one), but it is so much more fun when these guys really go for it, with Burton playing fast and strong. Best example is probably the last track, written by drummer Sanchez, called “Monk Fish.” Scott Colley is the capable, but less showy, bassist; tough to get a word in edge-wise when the other players are clearly having so much fun. Far livelier than the other two CDs, Guided Tour is a terrific introduction to the Burton’s massive catalog.

What a great night of jazz listening. I haven’t enjoyed writing an article about anything in I don’t know how long. Thanks for the opportunity. Go–listen!

Bill Evans: Last & Found

Late in the summer of 1980, pianist Bill Evans played several trio sessions at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner. Marc Johnson played bass. Joe LaBarbera played drums. Evans knew he was dying, knew that these would be his last sessions. Fortunately, the sessions were recorded. Two weeks later, he was gone.

Twenty years later, in 2000, Milestone released a box of eight CDs, one for each evening’s performance. For the past week or so, I’ve been listening to the discs. (You can, too: I just checked, and you can buy them on Amazon. The link is below.)

The performances are wonderful. Evans’ work has always been described as lyrical, poetic, introspective, relaxed, and a kin to European salon music.

Everybody Loves Bill Evans is one of his most popular single albums–perhaps a place to begin before buying the more expensive box. In a review from a long-ago book about jazz, I wrote: “Classic 1958 piano jazz, played by a musician so widely respected that Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal, and Cannonball Adderley signed their written praises for use as the album’s cover art. Most songs are confident variations on jazz standards like Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” is also a highlight. Bassist Sam Jones and (unrelated) drummer Philly Joe Jones keep things moving. More distinctive are Evans’s unaccompanied solos, particularly “Peace Piece” and “Tenderly,” both haunting because of the pianist’s light touch, tiny flourishes, patience, and willingness to allow the piano to resonate.”

In fact, I rediscovered the Last Sessions box after hearing one of Evans’ duets with Tony Bennett on the radio. When the albums was recorded, Bennett was just beginning to taste a possible comeback, and it was this album that led to his remarkable second-round success. I wrote: “Bennett was in his mid-fifties when he recorded this album in 1975. HIs voice is a tad husky and a bit light on the high notes, but his endless experience shapes and sells every word of every song. This adds meaning and depth to “Some Other Time,” “Waltz for Debby,” and other titles that had been in Evans’s repertoire for almost two decades. Evans’s accompaniment is perfect, and his solos are magnificent, fitting ever so perfectly between Bennett’s verses (“Some Other Time” includes a particularly fine example). Some songs such as “The Touch of Your Lips” and “We’ll Be Together Again,” are generally romantic and often sentimental.” The album was called The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album.

There are lots of Evans albums, and most are still available. But the more I listen, the more I favor the Last Sessions box, partly for its intimate club feel, partly because he speaks directly to the audience from time to time, mostly because the work causes me to sit up and listen because it is so clean, so well crafted, and so compelling. Nicely recorded, too.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00004YLJR/qid=1057202581/sr=1-5/ref=sr_1_5/103-1025772-7999806?v=glance&s=music

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