Coming in from several weeks on the road to back a new Concord release (her 13th on the label), entitled Round Midnight, singer Karrin Allyson enters Birdland tonight for a Tuesday-Saturday run. I’m a fan. Like her idol, Carmen McRae, Allyson plays piano with more than an arranger’s touch, as she demonstrates throughout the date (bassist Ed Howard and drummer Matt Wilson join her long-time guitarist Rod Fleeman in an impeccable rhythm section). Perhaps this is one reason for her uncanny, sodium-pentothal like phrasing, which certainly serves the repertoire on Round Midnight, comprised of blue ballads and reflective, elegiac songs. Allyson conveys the oceanic emotions with minimal artifice and a complete absence of mannerism or excess or bathos; her husky, lived-in, pitch-perfect contralto conveys a starkness that’s an aural analog to her Great Plains (Great Bend, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Minneapolis; Kansas City) background. Along with Gretchen Parlato’s The Lost And Found, it’s my favorite recording this year by a female vocalist. All the more interesting that, when coming up, Allyson was known for the cyborg chops she displayed when scatting at fast tempos (to hear what I mean, listen to Footprints, from 2006, on which she displays those skills with Jon Hendricks and Nancy King).
In 2001, in conjunction with Allyson’s release Ballads, on which she sang down the repertoire from the iconic John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman collaboration of that name, I had an opportunity to conduct a DownBeat Blindfold Test with Allyson. Here’s the unedited version.
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1. Kurt Elling, “Say It” (from FLIRTING WITH TWILIGHT, Blue Note, 2001) (4 stars)
I don’t recognize the voice. It sounds a little like Mark Murphy, but I know it’s not Mark Murphy. [LAUGHS] I like it. It sounds good. It’s a very focused version of “Say It Over and Over Again.” Cool little horn things behind it. I’ll give it 4 stars. I don’t know who it is, though. Unh-oh, this is Kurt Elling. But it sounds older than Kurt; I don’t think it’s him. Maybe it is Kurt. I’ll bet it is Kurt. Interesting. I didn’t even know he’d recorded this. I like it. [AFTER] As I said at the beginning, it’s a very focused thing. It’s not terribly romantic…but at the same time it is. It’s not the typical romantic sound. You don’t hear many singers do this song. That’s what turned me on about Trane’s ballad album, because it’s not a typically romantic sound. Like I said in the liner notes, it’s a deeper thing than simply romance.
2. Luciana Souza, “Embraceable You” (from AN ANSWER TO YOUR SILENCE, NYC, 1999) – (2 stars)
Sounds like a Cassandra Wilson disciple. I don’t know about disciple; that might be a little strong. But she sounds influenced by Cassandra Wilson. It’s kind of a cool arrangement. Her pitch is a little off for my taste, so I give it a 2. I really don’t know who it is. But it’s creative, and I like that. [AFTER] Many Brazilian singers do have that trait about bending the pitch a little bit, and I do like her feel very much. But for me, if you’re singing an American standard, maybe I’m just a snot, but it seems like maybe paying a bit more attention to the pitch would be a good thing.
3. Billy Eckstine, “I Want To Talk About You” (from COMPACT JAZZ: BILLY ECKSTINE, Verve, 1962/1989) – (5 stars)
Is it Arthur Prysock? No? Do I get another guess? Is it Grady Tate? [LAUGHS] It’s not Billy Eckstine. Is it? Yes? On the third guess, I guess I knew it was Billy Eckstine. It’s a bit more operatic than I’m used to hearing him present a tune. “Operatic” may be the wrong word. Because of that 12/8 Rock feel… It’s lovely. I love it. It’s classic. I’ll give it a five. I never really cared for the choir in the background, however, but that’s a whole other story. That’s not his fault. That’s the producer! And the time, the year it was done. Nat Cole did all that stuff.
4. Norma Winstone, “Prelude To a Kiss” (from WELL KEPT SECRET, Koch, 1995) (Jimmy Rowles, piano; George Mraz, bass) – (3-1/2 stars)
Is that Dena de Rose”? No? It’s interesting to take “Prelude To A Kiss” as a waltz and spread out the phrasing so much. It’s hard to do that. And she leaves space, which is nice. Her pitch is pretty good. I mean, it’s very good. Nice accompaniment. They’re providing a nice groove for her. I might like it better instrumentally this way than I like it for a vocalist. But that’s totally subjective for everyone. It’s not an insult toward her; it’s just a taste thing. And in that way, instrumentalists have it easy. Not easy, but that’s an advantage they have over vocalists, I think. Because lyrics, the way you present them… Like I said, she’s spreading out the phrasing. Because there are a lot of words to get in, but when you spread it out that much, it goes quite a bit slower, of course… I’m trying to get used to this version of this tune. I have no idea who it is. 3-1/2 stars.
5. Jimmy Scott, “All Or Nothing At All” (from OVER THE RAINBOW, Milestone, 2001) (Justin Robinson, alto sax) (5 stars)
Jimmy Scott. I didn’t think he did anything up! I love Jimmy Scott. This is cool. Beautiful. He’s somebody who knows how to paint a picture. I can even see him singing this. And I’ve never seen him live, so that’s kind of interesting! He’s an artist. I wish I’d heard this before I recorded my version of this…or before I recorded Trane’s version of this. I like the alto player. He has a really unique sound on his horn. [AFTER] I don’t have a problem with vibrato unless it’s insincere. It depends upon the age of the singer, too, in a way. Because physiologically, sometimes singers can’t help but waver. I’m not speaking about Jimmy here particularly; I’m just saying in general. So that’s a whole nother matter. But vibrato I don’t have a problem with if it’s well-placed!
6. Sarah Vaughan, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” (from AFTER HOURS, 1961/199_) (Mundell Lowe, guitar; George Duvivier, bass)
[AFTER A MINUTE] Is that Sarah? Is that early Sarah? Am I totally wrong, or is that Sarah? Mid period Sarah? She’s having fun with that tune with the breaks in the melody…as if this melody needs any more! It’s so unexpressive! [LAUGHS] Only kidding. Sarah’s got one of those trick voices. She can go wherever she happens to think about, and she can think about a lot of things, so therefore she can sing a lot of things. And she contains so much… I mean, she’s playing with you at the very end there. “Bye-bye, bye-bye,” she’s playing with you. At the beginning it’s a little playful as well because of the breaks in the arrangement in the middle. And she’s just singing it straight, it sounds beautiful. 5 stars. Was the guitarist Herb Ellis?
7. Tony Bennett, “Out Of This World” (from JAZZ, Columbia, 1964/1987) (Stan Getz, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano, Ron Carter, bass, Elvin Jones, drums) (5 stars)
[IMMEDIATELY] Tony Bennett. I like this tune. I used to sing this tune. Trane did this? I didn’t know that. I may have to do another Trane CD! What I like about Tony is his pretty much no holds barred approach to singing. I suppose that’s the Italian Tenor in him. But he’s not afraid of showing emotion. 5 stars. There’s a lot of reverb on this recording, maybe a little too much for my taste, but that’s probably the time as well. Is that Paul Desmond? Is it a tenor? All of a sudden I’m confused if it’s a tenor or an alto, for God’s sake! Shame on me! [LAUGHS] I think it’s a tenor. Is it Getz? Okay, I never said Paul Desmond! He was up there on that high register, though, with that tenor. I have this record here! I like Tony in this jazz context.
8. Dena De Rose, “The Touch Of Your Lips” (from I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW, Sharp-9, 2000) (4 stars) (DeRose, piano, vocals; Dwayne Burno, bass; Matt Wilson, drums)
[IMMEDIATELY] That is Dena, isn’t it? I just saw her at a gig, and she’s been in my consciousness. I heard her on Marian McPartland’s show. It sounds nice. Is she playing piano for herself on this? My first version of this tune was by Tony Bennett. I love this tune. I like singing it. This version is faster than it needs to be, but it’s swinging. It’s nice. That’s cool when pianist-singers will double their own line. I attempt that myself sometimes. She’s a good piano player. I know that was her first instrument. A real inventive solo. I like that very much. Four stars. [AFTER] As little as I know about Dena, and I like her musicianship very much, I know that she will find, the longer she does this, that her voice is more a part of her than she might realize. She’s an artist in progress, and she’s going to have a good run at this wonderful music.
9. Ian Shaw “If You Could See Me Now” (from SOHO STORIES, Milestone, 2001) (3 stars)
One of my favorite ballads of all time. Why is that singer starting on the bridge? Just kidding! [AT THE DOUBLE TIME] Don’t sabotage this beautiful tune! No!!! Oh, well. It’s nice, though. It’s tricky sometimes. We took “It Might as Well Be Spring,” as many other people have too…a beautiful ballad, and we samba-tized it. So it’s totally a matter of taste. I think it’s very important… And this singer is doing it. He’s enunciating. When you do a tune fast and it has a lot of lyrics, it’s very important to understand those lyrics. It’s almost like he’s trying to keep his rhythm section entertained or something. I know it’s not Al Jarreau, but he is Al Jarreau-influenced, I think…a little bit. Is he the pianist? No. I don’t know. It’s a little frantic for me, this version of this beautiful ballad. I’d give it 2. Although the singer’s performance is better than a 2, so I should give it more. 3 stars. It’s almost like this singer is a theatrical performer. He’s got a great feel. He’s a good singer. [AFTER] Now that I’ve discovered it’s Ian Shaw, I did hear him on a live gig once and really enjoyed it. It’s just not my preference to treat that tune that way, but like I said, it’s totally subjective. I said before I know who he was that this was more of a theatrical singer, and I got that impression when I saw him live, too. Maybe it’s that English drama, the Shakespearean influence he has from being British. I don’t know. Maybe. He’s a real showman. He was just with a pianist the night I saw him, and you can only do so much with that. And that’s good sometimes!
10. Betty Carter, “My Favorite Things” (from INSIDE BETTY CARTER, United Artists 1964/1993) (5 stars)
This is Betty Carter, of course. I love Betty Carter. Talk about bending the pitch; she does it, too. Not too much on this. Betty is an original, very unique. I feel like I learned a lot from this influence… I don’t know if it would be evident to anyone else. But I saw her many times live, and she was so integrated with her rhythm section. Because I feel like I am part of the rhythm section, not only when I’m playing piano but when I’m standing up singing. She may have felt a little bit like that, too. I don’t know. But she’s totally original. I love her. 5 stars. And not any singer could get away with doing this kind of… Good for her. Do that Indian EEYEEYEEYEE thing there. That ain’t Julie Andrews singing it! Yeah, good for you! She’s great. Not every singer could get away with what she does.
11. Jeffery Smith, “Lush Life” (from A LITTLE SWEETER, Verve, 1997) (3 stars)
Pretty voice. I like the conversational style he has at the end of his phrases. It’s nice. [SWING SECTION] Unh-oh! I’ve never heard “Lush Life” swung by a singer. Shows you how much I know. Again, I liked it on the verse. It’s beautiful. I’m not crazy about swinging this tune as a singer. But I mean, albeit it’s a waltz, but he’s swinging it. He’s got nice pitch. 3 stars. I was sort of really digging the verse in that dreamy state, and I know everybody doesn’t like it if they don’t swing or don’t do it in a different way, but it sort of turned me around a little bit on it. It kind of ruined my mood. But I suppose it’s a great way to do it in a club where it’s really noisy! [LAUGHS] I have been there and done that! That’s where we come up with all our different versions. Pure necessity is the mother of invention. Or non-invention.
12. Shirley Horn, “It’s Easy To Remember” (from I LOVE YOU, PARIS, Verve, 1994) (5 stars)
[IMMEDIATELY] Shirley. I was going to comment on the piano playing, but I should just wait… I love Shirley Horn. I’ve never heard her do this either. I love Shirley. She’s another unique, beautiful interpreter of songs for me. Her accompaniment, of course, is dreamy for her. She takes a bath in her ballads. She’s got all those suspended chords that always leave you…suspended as a listener. 5 stars
13. Carmen McRae, “Speak Low” (from PRICELESS JAZZ: CARMEN McRAE, GRP, 1955/1997) – (5 stars)
Early Carmen! I love Carmen. She can do no wrong. [LAUGHS] Carmen has so much attitude in her singing and contains… She’s a little bit like Sarah, but Sarah is a little more on the romantic side — or can be. But she can be sassy, of course, like she was given the name. But Carmen has so much attitude in her singing. It contains all kinds of emotion within one phrase. Yeah, I love Carmen. Five stars. I like this tune a lot. I used to do it. It’s a cool arrangement, too. It’s fun. I have no idea who it was.
14. Billie Holiday, “Why Was I Born?” (from THE COMPLETE BILLIE HOLIDAY ON COLUMBIA: 1933-1944, 1937/2001) – (5 stars) (Buck Clayton, tp.; Teddy Wilson, piano; Benny Goodman, cl.)
“Why Was I Born,” obviously. It’s not Louis Armstrong, is it? Oh. [LAUGHS] Billie Holiday. Of course. Those are different changes at the end of the A-section. It’s interesting. Different chord changes than I know, anyway. I never heard Billie’s version of this. I guess this is THE version! [LAUGHS] I knew Coltrane’s version. [CLARINET SOLO] The Dixieland approach. [When does this sound like it's from?] The ’40s. [Who do you think the pianist was?] Jimmy Rowles? She used to work with him all the time. I have no idea. Was it Buck Clayton on trumpet? Was it Tommy Flanagan? Teddy Wilson! Oh, sure. So you want me to give that a star rating? 5 stars. [LAUGHS] [So you're more familiar with her later recordings.] Mmm-hmm. Not so much the earlier stuff. It’s a terrible thing to admit. But I had to grow into Billie when I first started singing. She didn’t hit me as quickly as Sarah and Carmen, Ella… Part of it is that I did hear her later stuff first, like Lady In Satin, things that now I really appreciate. I think she’s somebody that you keep discovering. She’s got layers. She’s geologically got a lot of layers going on there.