Karrin Allyson At the Vermont Jazz Center
By Rob Fletcher
Rob Fletcher is a chromatic harmonica player based in Erving, MA. He plays chromatic, chord and diatonic in the harmonica trio The Harmaniacs. He also performs throughout New England in a variety of settings on guitar and voice (www.toasttown.com). Rob founded a corporate team building and training company called Quixote Consulting that specializes in music-based team building. He often writes about the power of music to help people lead stronger, happier lives in his blog At Your Best.
“I think it’s important for players that want to embrace any music – you need to go hear it live a lot and be a sponge with it…just let it absorb in you. And it does take a while.” – Karrin Allyson (from All About Jazz interview)
What a pleasure to see the Vermont Jazz Center filled with people for the Karrin Allyson concert. There were a lot of new faces at this sold out show. Clearly Karrin has a strong following! The quartet took to the stage for two tight sets. Singing in English, French and Portuguese, Allyson sang bossas, ballads, swing standards, bop and pop songs all arranged in a way that was all her own. She mainly featured songs from her most recent six albums, although she occasionally dug deep into her catalog. Her first album was in 1992 (I Didn’t Know About You). When I listen to that album now, I hear that she ‘arrived’ fully formed. Thirteen albums and four Grammy Award nominations later she has continued that unique path that was first documented over twenty years ago.
At the break between sets Bill Ballard came up to me with a big smile on his face. “It’s all meat!” he said. I knew what he meant. From a musician perspective, there’s no fluff when she sings. Everything is done for a reason. She’s careful, in the best sense of the word – she takes great care with her art. She showed care in all aspects of a performance – song choice, pacing, instrumentation, flow of the evening and altered it as needed – a careful eye revealed her subtly exhorting the band to drive a little harder at very specific moments. She picked well when to stand and sing and when to play piano while singing. She has her own way and her own sound. She’s really in control and knows what she’s singing. She’s locked in; leaping large intervallic jumps freely maintaining that sweet sound.
She’s a serious student – she knows her stuff. There’s a deep knowledge of the music, a deep choice of songs, the obvious is avoided. She’s a craftsman with a respect for the material she works with. She blended emotion and control and had peak moments of a sense of vulnerability within her tonal quality.
And there’s also a sense of what Picasso praised as “strength in reserve”. There were brief moments of fluid, effortless scat but not overpowering chorus after chorus. And there was vocalese, but not of solos – which can get challenging for me as a listener – but of melodies, which is a fresh delight.
Building New Rooms in the House of Jazz
Allyson is continuing the tradition of using the voice in jazz, breaking new ground, expanding the territory – into hard bop and beyond. Something vital – a kind of baton – has been passed on to her – like a slow motion decades-long relay race. Here’s an example: one of my favorite singer albums is Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley. There are only seven vocal cuts on it (the first seven) but what a seven! The album is then finished out with five instrumental Cannonball Adderley band songs. Out of those five, she sang new words (written by Chris Caswell) to two them – Teaneck and Never Say Yes. In an interview she said, “As a singer, I feel very influenced by instrumentalists and by many classic instrumental songs”, says Karrin Allyson. “Its tricky to put lyrics to the great, iconic tunes, because you want to do them justice.” Many singers rest on an audience’s nostalgia. Not Karrin – it’s as if she’s building new rooms in a lovely house.
Feeling the Lyrics
It’s a delight to see that Karrin really feels the lyrics. Singers have two powerful paths to move an audience – both the sound of their voice as an instrument and the words they sing. It’s a rare singer that can leverage these two powerful tools – Karrin is able to do that. A statement she once made about making albums also applies to individual songs. “It is about diving in whole hearted to whatever theme I’m looking at.”
The Musician Who Sings
It may have something to do with her past. Most of my favorite jazz singers also play an instrument. Karrin is no exception. Her training as a classical pianist has given her a grounding in harmony that brings a depth that can only be earned. She has the connection to the notes she sings that an instrumentalist has. She is a musician that sings, as opposed to a singer.
What I mean by that is that she is playing music that transcends her (wonderful) instrument. As a musician that plays harmonica, I see the same distinction between a harmonica player and a musician that plays harmonica or a guitar player vs. a musician that plays guitar. Pat Metheny notes this distinction in his introduction to Randy Vincent’s instructional book Three-Note Voicings and Beyond by calling Vincent a ‘musician who plays guitar’. Karrin’s music transcends the instrument – a musician who sings. To me, it’s easy to tell one from the other. Just ask yourself, “where is the attention being drawn to – the song or the instrument?” In an interview Karrin affirms this saying, “I don’t try and draw attention to myself particularly, I try to draw attention to the song, the music, and my players.”
Karrin the Piano Player
Her voice is so wonderful that people often miss the fact that at this point she’s playing piano on about half of the songs in a show and on all of the songs on her albums now. “”It personalizes it. I stand up within the show, about one-half of the time or maybe less. My band has changed and I haven’t hired a pianist on the road with me for several years now. I am the main piano player, and I have my guitarist and bass player. We are doing a lot of drummerless things these days too which is nice, but I love great drummers. I think that playing the piano personalizes it. Sometimes it makes it harder for me, because I am dealing with more. I am the rhythm player. In rock bands they have the lead guitarist and the rhythm guitarist and I always say that I am the rhythm pianist. It makes it harder for me in a way, but then again I can lay down grooves that I don’t have to describe to someone. I can really focus in on the heart of the tune I guess. I don’t mean that it has to be a ballad in that way. I am talking about the grooves and the core of the tune.”
In a different interview she also said, “When I learn songs I sit down at the piano with them. Usually I do that, even if it’s something I never really plan on playing. Like if it’s a real up bebopper, that’s not my thing at the piano. I’ll still learn the melody on the piano and play around with it. When singers come up and ask, ‘What would you suggest I do if there’s just three things?’ Number one is, do you play any piano? If you can, get some keyboard knowledge. It doesn’t mean you have to perform for people on the keyboard, but it certainly helps you as a musician.” Singers take note!
The Microphone as a Third Instrument
She really changed volume with microphone location – she’d start a phrase off loud and back off with the microphone or vice versa, or even sing to the side. She played the microphone like another instrument, especially when she stood and sang.
The Musicians in the Quartet
“This music that we are in, Jazz, is mostly Chamber Music. As a listener I know that I am more drawn in and interested in hearing it, when I feel and see and hear that musicians are interacting with one another and not just in their own little world playing to whatever their muse is. They have to become one organism on stage, but jazz can go in all different directions (also) and I love that about it too, especially the improvisational part of it. When I am singing a tune or I am playing in my band, I don’t need somebody just to keep time. I don’t need them to be just harmonic geniuses. What I need for them to do is to help me to tell the story and to have some experience within them and to help portray it.” – K.A.
Guitarist Steve Cardenas divides his time between accompanying singers – he’s heading to Europe after this show to play with Eliane Elias and plays on two wonderful Rebecca Martin albums People Behave Like Ballads and Middlehope – and playing modern bop (Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, Ben Allison, Brian Blade). These two twin career paths were both in play as he accompanied sensitively but also got fiery in key moments of his solos.
Drummer Todd Strait has been playing with Karrin Allyson since 1994 and their mutual delight in playing together was evident, especially on the drum and voice duet of I Want to Be Happy/What a Little Moonlight Can Do. Like Karrin, he combined subtlety with musical power and depth.
VJC’s hometown hero George Kaye got especially appreciative applause throughout the night. He put his five years of performing with Houston Person and Etta Jones to good use. This was the first concert he performed with Karrin and he came ready to play.
In a workshop I attended a week after the concert, Karrin told the group that music is the ultimate team sport. She once told an interviewer, “I think that it is a very democratic thing that (occurs) up there. I am the leader, but I do need them to help me tell the story. They have to have a good time. I need all of the musicians to help me tell the story, and to listen very carefully, because we are having a conversation up there. They need big ears, and I need them to have soulfulness in their playing. That is (also) what I try to give back (to them).”
Most of the songs were taken from Allyson’s 13 albums, with an emphasis on the most recent six. It was an education for any musician in pacing and flow. Karrin is a master at combining music and, like everything she does, is very thoughtful.
I found it to be really eye opening to see how important it was for her to have a flow and what I would call a pop music pacing.
The next song usually started while the audience was still applauding the next one. She focuses especially on beginnings and endings of songs, communicating with the musicians the tempo and feel with her whole body. Karrin once told an interviewer, “live you have to switch from style to style on a dime, and it’s not always successful, especially with bebop – time is everything, really. But say you’ve finished Moanin’and you’re going to do a bebop song, the tempo is important because if you’re spitting out words, like on Joy Spring, you want to be able to make your words understandable.”
How did Karrin fall in love with those great songs she picked to sing? She once said in an interview, “if it’s a great melody or if the lyrics are happening – and maybe it’s not both – you’re lucky if it’s both. If it has a meaning, one that everyone can get, or if it has a meaning to you and you hope to portray it for others, also the storytelling qualities, and the messages.”
Since she is so focused on the songs it was a fascinating study to note what she sang. Here’s approximately what she played in what order with my notes on each song. I also tried to list what album of hers the song appeared on for those of you who want to explore what you heard and loved further as well as add in quotes that fit from different interviews she’s done.
A Felicidade (Happiness) – Also the first song from her Imagina: Songs Of Brasil album.
Written by Antonio Carlos Jobim, with Portuguese lyrics by Vinicius de Moreas and English words translated by Susannah McCorkle, a singer who can be compared favorably to Karrin.
She sang the Portuguese words first, then English, just her and guitar then the band came in with her using rhythm eggs as shakers. She finished the song with the Portuguese words again.
“It’s a real live consideration…you’re thinking about what tune you want to start with, which is very important to get you going and connecting with the audience and your players. That’s important throughout the performance, but especially that first song. So yes, you definitely think, it’s not like I have to send a message and tell a story on this first song, I just want to get a flow going.” – K.A.
Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy, written by Mose Allison, the second song from her album In Blue – a bluesy number that started with just her and the bass.
She then moved to the piano to play and sing Turn Out the Stars by Bill Evans with words by Gene Lees, the first song from her ‘Round Midnight album with a solo in waltz time.
She stayed quiet with April, Come She Will by Paul Simon (arranged by Karrin).
I Found the Turnaround (Words to Hank Mobley’s “Turnaround”) from her album Footprints.
Chovendo Na Roseira (Double Rainbow) found on Imagina: Songs Of Brasil
Karrin started in Portuguese, just her voice and piano, then everyone came in. She then sang the English words written by Gene Lees. Chovendo is one of the few bossa nova songs written in driving waltz time. Karrin stretched it out with solos – piano solo first, then guitar, then piano and guitar trading phrases. Then she sang English words to the end with a scat ending.
I’m Always Chasing Rainbows from her ‘Round Midnight Album
“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is a popular Vaudeville song from 1917. It uses the melody of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu’s middle section. It’s been recorded by hundreds of people, from Perry Como to Alice Cooper. Karrin doesn’t sing the introductory verse.
“I think that you might find a pretty even number of folks who know about it and those who don’t. I think more current jazzers may not know it and I think that the more seasoned ones would. The theme is from Chopin. It is from “Fantaisie-Impromptu,” and the composer took that, and there is actually a verse in it, which I didn’t include, “at the end of the rainbow there is happiness,” but I didn’t feel like it fit too well. I wanted to put that intro in there and outro if you will. That song I used to play, when I was doing piano bar type of things. Someone asked me to learn it and I got a lot of suggestions from folks that way and I still do, so I put it in my repertoire. That has been hovering about for a long time.” – K.A.
She ended the first set with the bluesy I Don’t Worry About a Thing by Mose Allison, a song that to the best of my knowledge she hasn’t recorded.
“I think they (jazz and blues) both have quite a bit to do with one another. I am particularly fond of songs when you can hear both genres within each other. I’m a jazzer not a blueser, so when we do blues it’s going to have a lot of jazz in it because of the players you have.” – K.A.
She started set two like the first set, standing and singing without the piano.
Under Paris Skies (Sous Le Ciel De Paris). Although she introduced it as Under Paris Skies, she sang the French words only. Karrin is fluent in French.
“Even when we can’t understand a language, say I’m singing in Portuguese, and I’m not fluent in Portuguese, like opera singers who know a language can both speak and sing in it. I do speak French, and I’m learning Portuguese, and I certainly can’t converse in it, but you sing like you can. You don’t have to understand the language to get the feel or the style down. People love Edith Piaf in this country, they don’t necessarily know what she’s singing, but she has so much heart, soul, and feel in it that you get it.
How to prepare for it? I get tutoring in the languages, I don’t take it lightly or simply sing it syllabically. I want to know as much of the meaning as I can and get the accent down as close as I can. It’s hard, but I love languages, so it’s a labor of love. Also, getting the grooves down – I think what really captures us at first with Brazilian music are those wonderful samba, bossa, and folk grooves. Brazilian music has become such a big part of the American songbook too – so many great Brazilian composers.” – K.A.
All You Need to Say/Never Say Yes – a band feature with words by Chris Caswell. She started lightly, dug in for a scat chorus, a bass solo that quoted from melody, guitar solo also.
“I have always thought of scatting as just trying to make up another melody to the chord changes. You can take a linear approach or a more harmonic approach. Mine is probably more linear. It is another way for me to get interactive with the band. I am a musician who sings, so I am definitely part of the band. I am a leader, but I am (also) one of them. Vocalese is different than scat. It is singing a distinct melody with possibly a guitarist, horn player or whatever. You want to be in tune and breathing together. You want to sound like one.” – K.A.
Desafinado (in 7/8!) – A vocal feature, no other instrumental solos. She sang the English words only, scatted, and then sang the English words again.
“I think that what gets to me and other folks, are the rhythms, those infectious samba and bossa nova rhythms. Brazilian music is a very large (category). Somebody was saying the other day, it’s like eating Chinese food, because there is a ton of different kinds of Chinese food, but we say Chinese food, and we think of only one thing. Brazilian music is not just about samba, and it is not just about bossa nova. I am learning all of the time more about that. The music is layered with beautiful harmonies and beautiful melodies. I love the fact that Brazilian (composers such as) Jobim, are in love with nature, as I am too. His music is always connected to nature in some way.” – K.A.
Sophisticated Lady from Round Midnight
“It is funny how songs go in and out of our consciousness or even popularity at the time, depending on what area of the world that you are in. This song was being mostly played instrumentally. That is the way that I hear it out and about and I don’t hear many people singing it anymore. A wonderful gentleman that I have been working with here and there, Steve Nelson, a vibraphonist, when he would play on my gigs, I would ask him to do an instrumental here and there and he would choose that one. One time he said why don’t you come up and sing this one time through with us and we will take it out like a big band kind of a thing. I did and it became one of my favorites. It evokes such a great image. It is a great storytelling song.” – K.A.
Bye Bye Country Boy from In Blue – a song written by singer Blossom Dearie and Jack Segal, Karrin also took a nice piano solo on it
The Shadow of Your Smile (from ‘Round Midnight) – Like her recording of it, she sang the introductory verse acappella and then slid into a gentle bossa.
I Want to Be Happy (from the musical No, No Nanette)/What A Little Midnight Can Do – This was a thrilling drum and vocal duet, with Karrin modulating accapella in between drum solos.
She then brought the mood to a quieter, intimate place with two solo piano and voice songs – Robert Frost by bassist Jay Leonhart and the bluesy self-penned Home Cookin’ Man from her second album.
She brought the band back as well as VJC’s own Eugene Uman on piano for (I Can’t Say) Teaneck (from her Footprints album)
“Bebop has that continuum. You can’t look back, you have to keep moving forward…bop is an amazing intellectual challenge.” – K.A.
Eugene then accompanied her on Lover Man (in Am – it was really impressive to see Eugene transpose the song from memory)
Karrin encored with O Pato, the bossa nova song written by Jayme Silva, singing the English words by John Hendricks. This is a very popular song of hers – when I saw her perform last year, audience members where shouting for it. She used the shakers again and took a scat solo.
She ended the night on piano with the bluesy Randy Newman song Guilty, made famous by Bonnie Raitt. She started out with just piano and her voice, and then rest of band came in.
The Last Word from Karrin
“You can expect a lot of interaction among the band, a good choice of material, quality music and then sometimes you get the unexpected which is good.” – K.A.
We got that and more – thank you Karrin! Thanks also to Eugene Uman for bringing such world-class musicianship to our area.
See Karrin Allyson live in the following YouTube clips
Little Boat – Karrin Allyson
Karrin Allyson with Danny Embrey, guitar. John Goldsby, bass. Frank Chastenier, piano. Gregg Field, drums.
Moanin’ – Karrin Allyson
Nancy King & Karrin Allyson in Tel Aviv http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImN_8daTKuQ
Nancy King & Karrin Allyson Live In Israel
Karrin Allyson – Sweet Home Cookin’ Man
Performing live at the Old Mill, March 18th 2010. Toronto
Karrin Allyson & the KJO, Help Me
Joni Mitchell’s Help Me as performed by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra and Karrin Allyson
All You Need To Say (with Karrin Allyson)
Frequency Vocal Jazz Ensemble from MiraCosta College (Oceanside, CA) performing All You Need To Say (also known as Never Say Yes) with Karrin Allyson.
Karrin Allyson @ Lincoln Center: Chovendo Na Roseira (Double-Rainbow)
Karrin Allyson@Reigen-live 5.11.2011