In recognition of the birthday of the magnificent pianist-composer-educator Geri Allen, here’s the text of a long piece that Jazziz gave me the opportunity to write about her in 2010.
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“Music can be a lot of different things. It can be about the celebration of the intellect. It can be about the celebration of the body and movement. It can be about a quest. It can give you an inner strength, create a fertile place for peace to exist. I think that what I’ve come to want from music is to have all of those things in it.”—Geri Allen
Geri Allen’s concurrent spring 2010 releases on the Motéma label, Flying Toward The Sound and Live, her first since 2006, are works of high distinction. The former, a tour de force subtitled “A Solo Piano Excursion Inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock,” is a suite of eight original compositions on which the composer “refracts”—her terminology—the vocabularies of that distinguished troika into her own lyrical, kinetic argot, conveyed with authority and refinement. The latter, culled from a pair of concerts, is the bebopcentric debut recording of Timeline, an Allen-led unit, conceived a decade ago, with veteran bassist Kenny Davis, youngblood drummer Kasa Overall, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, who propel a succession of improvisations that are a step up in intense rhythmic edge and speculative spirit from Allen’s more programmatic, curated recordings of the past decade.
Both offerings were imminent last April when Allen did a week at the Village Vanguard, and considering the context, she might well have treated the occasion as an opportunity for a preview. Instead, she convened a new quartet, with two old friends—tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer Jeff Watts—and up-and-coming bassist Joe Sanders. Each contributed two compositions. She functioned as essentially a co-equal member of the ensemble, allowing interpretations to coalesce from night to night in a workshop-like manner, lightly guiding the flow.
“It’s my band, but I decided that I wanted it to be free,” Allen explained over lunch a few days before the summer solstice. “I want everybody to have this opportunity to own it together.”
“Whenever I work with Geri, it’s a family thing, like going to my cousin’s house,” Watts remarks. They met at the cusp of the ‘80s when Allen was working towards a Masters in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was pretty new to jazz, trying to figure things out,” he recalled. “Geri was fluent in blues and bebop, had absorbed a lot from Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and was studying world music, things about South India and Africa—what pygmies were singing and so on—and applying it to her music. She was already a professional great musician.”
This became apparent to the broader jazz public when Minor Music, a German label, issued Allen’s 1984 debut, The Printmakers, a trio date with Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille, and Home Grown, a 1985 solo recital. Numerous next-generation pianists took note.
“Her perspective was rooted in tradition, but simultaneously daring and experimental—a truly modern musician,” says Vijay Iyer, who soaked up Home Grown at 17. “Her music contained intense polyphony, like African drumming at the piano. Her groove was really strong, but variable and fluid, almost speechlike at times. She created vibrant colors, and she wasn’t afraid to work with technology. She never had a bag that she was playing, but sounded like herself all the time.”
Jason Moran experienced his eureka moment upon hearing Allen’s brief solo towards the end of the first song on V, a long out of print Ralph Peterson ensemble date. “I heard phrases I’d had never heard played on piano before, more assured than Andrew Hill, freer than Herbie Nichols—firm but strange ideas that felt almost familiar and inviting, but you were unsure what it was,” he says. “I was convinced she’d made the newest mark on modern jazz piano, the next step into the future.”
It’s hard to think of any comparably prominent musicians among Allen’s ‘80s peer group who matched her willingness to engage with multiple musical dialects, to incorporate both “inside” and “outside” approaches into her expression. “I don’t see this as a conflict,” Allen says of her comfort zone with crossing lines that most players won’t. “I see it as a right. All artists have the right to make a statement, and it’s my right to interject all my influences, to walk through different points of view, to give respect to all these musics I love while remaining grounded in jazz as my core expression, and embracing the rigors of that choice.”
Towards actualizing this aesthetic, Allen has piggybacked on “the rebel spirit” of the visionary pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams, whose compositions and arrangements she most recently performed and music-directed during a three-night centennial birthday tribute at the Kennedy Center in May. Allen launched her intimate relationship with Williams’ corpus during Pittsburgh days, took it to another level when she portrayed Williams in the Robert Altman film Kansas City, and documented it on the 2005 recording Zodiac Suite: Revisited, Allen’s only recording not devoted primarily to her original music.
Most consequentially, Williams’ insistence on establishing her own terms of engagement throughout a half-century in the music business made Allen “feel entitled to try to find my voice through composition.” A further draw was “her level of fearlessness—to be so well-prepared that whatever you throw at this person, they’re going to land on their feet.” At the same time, Allen adds, “Mary represented the absolute core of jazz. She understood the power of knowing and embracing whence she came, which is where true freedom must live.”
Which is why, in 2008, when Williams’ personal manager, Father Peter O’Brien, wrote a Guggenheim Fellowship grant proposal for Allen to develop a solo piano project, she opted to draw on Hancock, Tyner and Taylor for raw materials. “I’ve been teaching a lot for the last few years, and focusing on ensembles,” she said, referencing her position as Associate Professor of Jazz Piano and Improvisation Studies at the University of Michigan. “For this, I decided to create a research opportunity that could morph into focusing on the challenges of what playing the piano is.
“These musicians changed the way we think about the piano’s function in ensemble and solo contexts. Their solo language broke through and created shifts. They’re heroes who celebrate human ingenuity. They let us know that to join this continuum, you must do the formidable task of learning the tradition, but also find your voice in that.”
Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson calls his first Allen sighting—a 1990 Minneapolis performance with Anthony Cox and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff—“one of the most important concerts I ever saw.”
“It was something to do with Africa, something to do with free jazz—spiritual and surreal at the same time,” says Iverson, who was then 19. “She seems to have thought about and reinterpreted each style that concerned her—Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Hancock, Eric Dolphy—in a postmodern way. She’s like a chameleon.”
“Chameleon” is an apropos descriptor for Allen’s pan-stylistic sensibility, informed by several overlapping streams of influence, not least of which emanate from Hancock, Taylor and Tyner for “the amazing power of their sound production, their approaches to touch, their attacks on the instrument,” and their projection of identity through composition. But “Chameleon” is also the title of a popular Hancock tune from 1973, when the teenage Allen was paying close attention to Hancock’s plugged-in Headhunters band. “That sound was on the cutting edge of what I was experiencing growing up,” she says. “It had a feeling that I knew from Detroit’s avant-garde scene, and it opened up my playing, my ideas on freedom, maintaining an audience’s interest through a 25-minute tune. Also, the new sonic quality of the electronica was thrilling.”
She connected to Hancock’s “world-is-my-oyster” attitude “where you could do anything you want with music.” Allen mentioned Hancock’s 2008 Grammy for River: The Joni Letters. “I don’t know if anybody else could have done it,” she said. “That’s the product of a meticulous, well-planned journey—it doesn’t just happen. Then the courage of doing Ravel in G major [“Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, 2nd Movement” from Hancock’s 1998 release, Gershwin’s World] to create a modern evolution of a piece that was etched in stone.”
Indeed, Allen mirrored Hancock’s path—both developed formidable chops through early classical piano studies, and gestated polymath interests within the pragmatic black culture ethos, particularly prevalent then in enlightened Midwest circles—of placing all musical food groups on the same plate. “It was made clear that, to be a musician, you were fortunate if you could make a living,” she says, “and to do so, you would have to be versatile and open.”
Familiar with jazz through her father’s record collection, involved in music-as-ritual both through church activity and the ferocious R&B and funk soundtrack of the day, Allen—mentored by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who would inspire several subsequent generations of Detroit jazz musicians—embraced the notion of a jazz career not long after entering Cass Tech, Detroit’s top-shelf arts high school.
“I was ready, and once my parents got over the shock, then I was good,” Allen says. She adds that her father, an educator and the son of a minister, was initially dubious about exposing his teenage daughter to the bars and lounges where jazz was played, but relented on the counsel of his close friend Earl Lloyd, a former Fort Wayne Piston who was one of the first African-Americans to play in the NBA.
Another Detroit mentor, dancer Jackie Hillsman, ran a studio on Grand River Avenue where, among other things, dancers and musicians spontaneously improvised together. “Having Maurice Chestnut on stage with me now is directly influenced by that experience,” says Allen, who first documented her sound-in-motion concept on a single duo track with Detroit tap dancer Lloyd Storey on her second album, Open on All Sides…In The Middle. “Coming up in Detroit, we’d play bebop, and there was a generation of folk who would get up and dance,” she recalls. “I practiced having the impact of that feeling in my improvisations, whether in the solo line or the ostinatos I use, and juxtaposing it with the harmonic challenge.” She mentioned a lengthy call-and-response with Chestnut and Kassa Overall on Charlie Parker’s contrapuntal chopbuster “Ah Leu Cha” from Live, noting that Chestnut “shares our challenge to articulate Bird’s virtuosic line and improvise within the same structures.”
Most important, Allen was learning her craft in real time, in the crucible of public performance. She recalls her very first gig, playing keyboards with bassist Ralphe Armstrong at Dummy George’s Jazz Room on McNichols Avenue. “The union man walked in and asked me for my card—I immediately felt the reality of being a professional musician.” Later that evening, local hero pianist Teddy Harris “sat down and slipped me right off the piano bench because I was playing the wrong changes. That established my level of heart, right off the bat. You learned on the bandstand, and if you were serious you had to develop a thick skin.”
Allen hit New York in 1982, settling to Brooklyn, where rents were reasonable. She soon found work with Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe; calls from Art Ensemble of Chicago members Joseph Jarman and Lester Bowie soon followed. She met a cohort of best-and-brightest Kings County peer groupers—among them Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Vernon Reid, Robin Eubanks, Terri Lyne Carrington, Lonnie Plaxico, and Mark Johnson—and they gradually formed a collective known by the acronym M-BASE, exploring ways to extrapolate mixed meters, electronic sounds, and tropes from R&B and Rock into jazz expression.
Within M-BASE, Allen found a space in which to incorporate her varied interests. “In the beginning, it was very organic,” she says. “We were all around the same age, trying to make ends meet, always out listening to music. Everybody was writing, experimenting, sight-reading hard music, challenging each other to upgrade our professionalism. We were embracing everything we liked.” The use of electronics and mixed meters, she adds, “wasn’t a new idea. We took inspiration from Tony Williams and Lifetime, from Miles and Herbie, and then refracted their music in our own way. I was dealing with mixed meters before I came to New York; the goal was to make them sound natural, so it wasn’t like the dress wearing me, but I’m wearing the dress.
“When we think of M-BASE now, it’s definitely Steve Coleman’s conception—he had very specific ideas about composition, so his tunes had an individual sound, as did everyone’s initially. Eventually, the sound became much more institutionalized, so to speak. I have a fluid way that I like to hear music and sound, which wasn’t fitting into that any more, and that’s partly why I decided to move on creatively.”
As that door closed, another opened with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and an equal-billing trio with Haden and Paul Motian that made four recordings between 1987 and 1991 on which Allen established a stylistic room of her own, spare and poetic. On Ralph Peterson’s Triangular, from 1988, documenting another trio, she brought forth a rollicking, buoyant, confident take on bebop roots.
By 1996, Allen had augmented her c.v. with three transformational associations. One was a 1993 project on which she, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette fed the fire for master bebop singer Betty Carter, who admonished Allen “to play upbeats to give momentum to the rhythm section—what I think of as the style of Red Garland.” She continues: “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about comping that way. I was hearing something darker, warmer, richer…in other words, more akin to Ellington and Monk and Herbie Nichols. Jack and Dave had played with Miles, and they understood what she was saying.” Thus prepared, Allen recorded a ferocious date in March 1994 with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, “where I went from being an excited observer of that sound to an actual participant,” foreshadowing a subsequent decade spent assimilating Hancock’s pianistic vocabulary into her own conception, particularly on recordings by trumpeter Wallace Roney, then her husband.
There was also a heady three-year gig, including two recordings and several tours, with Haden’s one-time employer Ornette Coleman, who had last worked with a pianist more than thirty-five years before, who honored her by performing two duo selections on Eyes…In the Back Of Your Head, her final Blue Note recording, released in 1997. “Playing with Ornette shifted my conception of the piano,” Allen says. “The sound was more important than the notes, though technical prowess was important, too. It’s very much like your first try at double dutch—what not to do, how not to reduce what’s there, but contribute something to help propel the music.”
A broader lesson, which Allen seems always to have understood innately, is to be willing, when necessary, “to be told what to do” in order to meet the demands of distinguished elder artists. She recalls her early New York years: “Some concepts I was more prepared for than others, but I’d go back to the drawing board and work through the equation. If you choose to deal with your weakness in an area that’s being challenged, you grow; if not, it just gets harder the next time you have to confront it. It does not go away. This is how life is.”
Even in 2010, the upper echelons of instrumental jazz remain primarily a men’s club. It’s no easier than it ever was for jazzwomen to balance the demands of their profession—the travel, the need to carve out personal space to practice and reflect—with those of parenting. Allen’s responsibilities are nothing if not substantial—a single mother of three since her recent split from Roney, she continues to tour while also fulfilling a weekly three-day obligation in Michigan when school is in session. But nothing seems to deter Allen from moving forward creatively.
“Women in my family always worked, including my mother,” Allen says. “As I was growing up, she was a defense contract administrator for the government, high up in rank, and well respected for her work ethic and fairness. Then she came home and was a great mom. She and my father raised me to be fearless, and pray. I felt that it would be a challenge as a jazz musician, but it couldn’t be so different from any other working mom who traveled as part of their career.”
She brought her children on the road until they reached school age, and retained a mother’s helper, who remains in her employ, when her youngest daughter, now 12, was six months old. “I have never had to worry about whether my children were well cared for,” Allen says.“That idea of family has been core in my life. My church has also become core in my life. My family is spiritually based, and service to the community is an important part of our legacy. I’ve seen that from the way my father mentored students through the years. In the same way, musicians in the community shared themselves with and made room for the next generation.”
Such bedrock kept Allen’s focus on the bigger picture at “rough moments when I felt musicians really were being mean” because of gender. “Most of the musicians were coming from a place of respect for the music, trying to get to something, and so was I,” she says. “I choose to remember the life-changing experiences, the ones that are pure humanity—life lessons about connecting with people in highly evolved ways. I think the real power of this music is that it can transform through authentic connections with others.
“It’s amazing to take a bird’s eye view of all the connections. I’m grateful and proud to have earned my place in New York, to be part of something so important that goes way back. I wouldn’t trade any of it—each and every breakthrough, and those other moments where you wondered why you were still trying to be here. The ups and the downs. I have faith that there is a reason for both.”