Tag Archives: Geri Allen

For Terri Lyne Carrington’s Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2011

To acknowledge the birthday of the estimable drummer-producer Teri Lyne Carrington, a force on the scene since her late teens, here’s a feature article that I was given the opportunity to write about her for Jazziz  magazine in 2011. (Her inclusivity and incisive taste come through in this excellent Jazz Times “Before and After” with  Larry Applebaum.)

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When Terri Lyne Carrington was 17, about to matriculate at Berklee School of Music as a full-time student, her fellow Bostonian, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, intoned the now-famous aphorism, “all politics is local.” Without implying any direct influence, one might say that Carrington—now a 45-year-old tenured Berklee professor, long-standing master drummer, and respected producer—operates by the imperative that “all music is social.”

That principle applies to Carrington’s new release, The Mosaic Project, her fifth as a leader, and fourth on which she coalesces, as she states on a promotional video on her website, “a lot of different textures and colors and pieces to make a whole picture.” There are 13 genre-spanning selections, including her arrangements of songs by Irving Berlin, Al Green, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Nona Hendryx, and the Beatles, and originals that refract the Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and M-Base schools of hardcore jazz and fusion. To perform them, Carrington assembled nine singers whom she’s either worked with or produced (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carrington, Hendryx, Carmen Lundy, Gretchen Parlato, Dianne Reeves, Patricia Romania, Esperanza Spalding, and Cassandra Wilson), and an ace ensemble including, in various configurations, Geri Allen, Patrice Rushen, and Helen Sung on piano and keyboards, Spalding on bass, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Tineke Postma on alto saxophone, Anat Cohen on clarinets, and Sheila E. on percussion. She propels the proceedings with a global array of beats, navigating each flavor with idiomatic authority and a point of view, unfolding an intricate metric web in whatever direction the music suggests.

With so many moving parts in play, the outcome could well have been disjointed, or by-the-numbers stiff. Instead, Carrington creates a cohesive suite—the flow is relaxed and kinetic, the soloing is intense and probing, the ensemble breathes as one. “Terri has a broad, clear voice, and knows how to state her intentions so people understand,” says Reeves, who met Carrington when the drummer was a 10-year-old prodigy. “If she’d painted this picture with somebody else on drums, it would still be uniquely Terri Lyne Carrington’s music.”

“Terri is a connector,” Allen says of the way Carrington’s calm demeanor inspired the tight-yet-loose chemistry. “She knows how to pull together the right combination of people and energies and give them a sense of freedom within the context of her projects. This setting felt like home, a family thing where nobody’s sitting with their arms folded, waiting for you to prove you deserve to be here.”

Notions of family, both biological and musical, deeply inform Mosaic Project and two prior Carrington recordings from the aughts. On 2001’s all-instrumental Jazz is A Spirit [ACT], she convened several first-call peers, as well as Herbie Hancock, her frequent employer, and the voice of drum icon Jo Jones circa 1984, with a year to live, telling Carrington, “As long as I’m here, you run into any problems, call me—because of your grandfather, because of your father, and because of you.” She explicitly acknowledged bloodlines on the 2008 session More To Say (Real Life Story: Next Gen), a creative take on the funky side of smooth jazz (with brief blasts of Afro-Carribean and hip-hop). On that album she plays the contemporary grooves with an attitude that recalls the function that her grandfather, drummer Matt Carrington, fulfilled when jazz was swing, and swing was dance music. He died a few months before her birth, and his drums became her first kit.

On the aforementioned projects, Carrington, like many prominent sister musicians accustomed to being the only woman on the bandstand, recruited almost exclusively male associates to convey her vision. But on Mosaic Project, Carrington makes a firm statement on what it means to be a female jazz musician in the 21st century.

“People always tried to put me in situations with women, but it never felt comfortable or natural,” Carrington said. Influenced by recent engagements with Spalding (she performs on her 2010 release Chamber Music Society), and with Allen (they’ve shared numerous bandstands since the ‘80s, most recently in Postma’s quartet), her feelings shifted. “For me, Esperanza completed a circle,” she continued. “Nothing against other female bass players, but I felt like-minded with her, as I do with Tineke and other female horn players I’ve met recently. I won’t think twice about accepting a gig with them or calling them for a gig, because I like the way they play.”

Carrington provided detailed charts, each catering to the idiosyncracies of the vocal and instrumental soloists. She conveyed the nuances not only through in-studio instructions, but by sending to each participant an MP3 demo containing horn parts, basslines, chord changes, harmonic voicings, even her own interpretation of the lyrics in the style of each singer. “I composed every note you hear, other than the solos,” Carrington says, noting that she wrote nightly last spring after putting her three-year-old son to bed.

Sometimes, Carrington loosened the reins, instructing the players to do “something more personal” by focusing on the chords and not the written voicings. That flexible perspective and attitude of trust was crucial in actualizing her “jazz means no-category” aesthetic. “Terri doesn’t play drums like a groove machine that I need to lock into with a bass part,” Spalding said. “To me, she plays drums sort of like a piano. Each register and drum of the kit is like its own instrument that you could say she’s orchestrating, as though each drum has a voice. Playing bass, I have to be solid keeping the time in a specific place, but stay on my toes and be ready to dance with this orchestrated, multi-faceted momentum she’s creating. She’s so diverse—in her playing, you hear all the styles of music she’s mastered.”

In Allen’s view, Carrington’s encyclopedic knowledge of drum history bedrocks her cool boldness. “Terri has the foundation together, and she’s always felt confident to push ahead and mix, in a seamless way, the root with the future,” she says. “She understands drumming from the perspective of different world musics. She understands technology. She understands the pulse of what’s happening today.”

“I’m a jazz musician who is influenced by many other things,” Carrington said. “I try to mesh them together in my presentation, but jazz is still going to come out.” In this regard, she mentioned her father, Sonny Carrington, a professional saxophonist who went 9-to-5 to raise his family. “When I was doing TV shows in the ‘90s (she was house drummer on the Arsenio Hall Show and Vibe, hosted by Sinbad), I was playing very little jazz jazz, and I told my father I didn’t want to put the word ‘jazz’ in front of my name, like ‘jazz drummer’ or ‘jazz musician.’ He said, ‘You can’t run away from who you are.’ It stuck.

“I grew up listening to his music, jazz-based stuff that felt good—Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, Hank Crawford. That swing conception is my root. Then I allow all my experiences as a child, teenager, young adult, and now adult, to seep in. Obviously, classic jazz is not of our generation—though I’m not putting down people who live more in the past, because they’re keeping that alive. It goes back to art for art’s sake or art for social consciousness. If you want to be socially aware through your art and tell people how you feel about life in general, what you’re doing has to reflect who you are, and current music is important. With instrumental music, it’s challenging for the listener to really know your intent. That’s why vocal music has always been so important to me—the message gets out to the listener.”

[BREAK]

Carrington remarked that she predicates her musical affiliations on “who I can connect with without thinking too hard,” and that playing with women “doesn’t feel particularly different” than with men.” Indeed, as she states in the publicity materials, the whole point of The Mosaic Project is that “you don’t hear gender.”

Reeves concurred, stating that she felt only “the vibration of creativity.” Yet she also states that on her album, That Day, a Carrington-supervised opus from 1997, “it was exciting to have a woman’s voice” in the producer’s chair. “As an artist, you want the producer to respect you for what you do—your ideas, your ability,” Reeves said. “I’ve known Terri so long, I knew I was in capable hands; she allowed me to feel I could be vulnerable—that I could stretch. She hears everything, she has strong opinions, and she came up with specific ideas that she knew would appeal to me. She knows how to do that with other people, too.”

Spalding opined that gender plays a subtle role in musical production, parsing the Mosaic Project experience through a music-mirrors-life approach. “Working with all these women, for the first time I experienced what most men always experience,” she stated. She noted that women are raised by similar codes, encounter similar “social stigmas and social habits,” and that, since music “is an extension of our identities and personalities,” these affinities “can’t help but seep into the way we choose to interact with music as it passes by us in real time—maybe we’re communicating a little closer to the same language. Sometimes I feel it in a subtle, sort of unconscious way, but as soon as I try to identify something, it’s gone.”

For Carrington, that “something” is the female predisposition to be “a little more in tune from a compassionate perspective, a serving perspective, a ‘let me make this bed for you’ perspective, whereas a guy more naturally just steps in. I like both things, and both are happening in most women. The best male players have it, too. But a woman’s nature, I think, is to hold back for a second, assess the situation quickly, and be supportive. That nurturing quality—without trying to—makes the music feel more beautiful. Sometimes I have to work at not doing that too much, so everything doesn’t sound too polite.”

She observes such reticence among the young women who study with her at Berklee. “I think it’s less natural for women to hit things,” she said. “Even though we’re making music, it’s still a somewhat aggressive action that a lot of women—not all—don’t gravitate to. The majority are still a bit apologetic. When kids play catch, say, a girl’s instinct is to throw or pass the ball. A guy’s instinct is to grab the ball and hold onto it.”

It was hard to imagine that this had ever been an issue for a musician who spent consequential time on bandstands with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Danilo Perez, following postgraduate New York associations in the ‘80s with such high-pedigree jazzmen as Clark Terry, Frank Foster, James Moody, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Barron, Lester Bowie, Stan Getz, and Mulgrew Miller, not to mention M-Base innovators like Greg Osby and Gary Thomas.

“No, I think it has been,” Carrington responded, recalling past engagements at the Village Vanguard when she “wanted to put my best foot forward” before her drummer peers in the crowd, “to show off and say, ‘Yeah, I’m bad; I can play.’” Often, she added, “I couldn’t get past a hurdle to do that ownership thing. I wanted to stand out more, but I couldn’t make myself do it if it didn’t come naturally at that moment.”

It seemed that this response might pertain more to the demands of apprenticeship than some inherently female characteristic. “That’s true,” she said. “But I felt a lot of the younger drummers were more willing to step all over the music. To me, that’s a male quality. Some people perceived that as overplaying or being inappropriate, whereas many people felt I was always appropriate, didn’t overplay. As I got older and more seasoned, and played with peers or younger people, I became more confident and comfortable with myself. I know that I’m naturally about serving the music and fitting in, so I don’t mind saying, if necessary, ‘We’re going over here for a minute, and we’re doing this.’ I’m always going to be appropriate. But now I see being appropriate differently.

“My father told me, ‘You never give anybody a show.’ He felt I could. But that’s not what I do. I like playing through everybody’s solos, and bringing something to it. I’ve started realizing that this can be captivating in itself. People tell me they couldn’t take their eyes off me, and I hadn’t taken a drum solo. So I allow myself to be featured without featuring myself. I know that when I get deep inside the music, it can be a force, a magnetism, that draws people in.”

Few drummers could conjure as much contextually appropriate dazzle as did Carrington in November with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci during a Philadelphia concert exploring the repertoire of Perez’ landmark 1996 date, Panamonk, on which she and Jeff Watts split drum duties. Earlier in the month, after several gigs in Spain with Perez and Patitucci in the Wayne Shorter Quartet—she recommended them to Shorter at the end of the ‘90s—as a sub for Brian Blade, Shorter told Carrington it was as though she “had never really left the group—I was like the fifth member all that time.” He backed the words by asking her to join the group in Brazil in June.

Still, Carrington’s 2011 itinerary includes numerous encounters with women, including various Mosaic Project offshoots, tours with Spalding’s trio, a collaborative Carrington-Allen-Spalding trio, and hoped-for follow-ups to a program of young girls’ songs that debuted at the Kennedy Center last October on which Allen and Rushen played Steinway Grands. Over the summer, she’ll play drums and serve as music director for a tour called “Sing the Truth,” on which Reeves, Angelique Kidjo, and Lizz Wright will interpret songs written by African-American women from Bessie Smith to Lauryn Hill.

“I might want to do a Joni Mitchell song, even though she’s not African-American, because she’s such a strong songwriter,” Carrington says of the latter endeavor. “It doesn’t have to be just writers either—it could be a Mahalia Jackson song.” She expounds on her ecumenical tastes, referencing Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, neo-soul, “organic rock with a blues orientation” a la the Allman Brothers, and drummers “who aren’t mechanical” like Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. “From TV, I developed respect for all the genres, because I had to sound as close as possible to people who specialize without imitating them. You focus, come on strong and make the point, because you have less than a minute. There’s no room for error.

“I’ve always put my heart into whatever I do,” she continues. “One of my favorite gigs ever was with Bill Withers when he came out of retirement to do a party. If I was just about playing the drums, then playing with Wayne or Herbie would be much more satisfying than playing with Bill Withers. For me it’s about making music and being creative.”

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Filed under Drummer, Jazziz, Terri Lyne Carrington

For Dr. Billy Taylor’s 93rd Birthday Anniversary (1921-2010), An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2005

I got to know Dr. Billy Taylor a bit towards the end of the ’90s, after Bret Primack asked to write the liner notes for a live recording by his trio—unfortunately, it was never released. (I posted it on this website three years ago to the day.) Five years later, he consented to have me come to his Bronx apartment to sit for a DownBeat Blindfold Test, of which I post the uncut version below. His responses show how open-minded he was, how oriented to the here-and-now. A great artist and ambassador for the music, much missed.

 

Billy Taylor BT (Raw):
1. Geri Allen, “Dance of the Infidels” (from THE LIFE OF A SONG, Telarc, 2004) (Allen, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums, Bud Powell, composer)

I have no idea who that is. I haven’t been listening to other people for a long time now, since I had my stroke. So I’ve been listening mostly to things that I did. So now I’m not as aware as I used to be. Because I had to listen to a lot of people to present them in the different things that I was doing.

This is very interesting. It’s someone who’s harmonically oriented, and really is handling the piano like a horn in some respects, because he’s playing that kind of horn-like improvisations. I find that very interesting, because it goes off into some very different spaces that I wouldn’t think to do. I liked it. [Do you recall the tune?] No, I don’t. [Someone you knew pretty well composed it.] Really? I’m embarrassed. [The original version was at a much hotter tempo.] This was very relaxed. I liked where it was going. It helped me… I’m listening. Oh yeah? Really? That kind of stuff! I also liked the rhythm section very much. It seems like a group that’s played together a lot, and they know each other. Everybody seemed comfortable. 4 stars. A very fine performance. [AFTER] I’ll be darned! Geri is one of my favorite people, and one of the people’s whose work… I’m embarrassed now. Because she is so special to me. She’s one of the few people I’ve asked to play my work. I was ill, and she substituted for me on a thing that I was doing for David Parsons Dance Company, and did a brilliant job. Oh, she’s wonderful. Oh, it’s really embarrassing. Because I have this. But I didn’t… Man, I like this picture, too.

2. Bebo & Chucho Valdes, “Peanut Vendor” (from PAQUITO D’RIVERA PRESENTS CUBA JAZZ, RMM, 1996) (Bebo Valdes & Chucho Valdes, piano; Moises Simon, composer)

That’s two players that really are comfortable playing in Latin Jazz. I really love that. I have no idea who they are. But they are so comfortable with that style, man. My first job playing Latin music was with Machito, and I remember the first time Mario Bauzá threw something like that at me. I didn’t know what to do with those two chords, man! So the best I could do was to play some jazz over it, and in that band it worked, until he could get back to the piano and show me what to do with the montuno. That whole idea of giving you all the information you need harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, it just amazes me how they can do that in that context. You’re talking basically a very simple harmony. I fell out when I heard the pianist playing some Art Tatum, that thing that he does. It was pretty exciting. It sounds like Chucho, who I’ve played with. 4 stars for sure.

3. Ron Carter, “The Golden Striker” (from THE GOLDEN STRIKER, Blue Note, 2003) (Carter, bass; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Russell Malone, bass)

It sure sounds like Percy Heath and John Lewis doing some interesting things. The tune is by John Lewis, but I don’t recall the name, although I’ve played it. I certainly like the kind of interplay that people who know one another have in a combination like this. It’s not just the fact that you’re playing a familiar jazz work, but they are so comfortable with it. I hear something that I haven’ t heard. They are adding something very personal to it. Everything you’ve played for me, I’m giving at least four stars. Because what you’ve played for me so far, these are masters. They’re people who are playing something that is part of the repertoire, and it’s not something I’ve heard someone else play and come close to this kind of feeling and projecting the kind of thing that John Lewis meant when he wrote the song. [AFTER] I love it! Like I said, it’s jazz masters.

4. John Stetch, “Bright Mississippi” (from EXPONENTIALLY MONK, Justin Time, 2004) (Stetch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I think Monk would have enjoyed that. It was different! There are a lot of things you can do with the changes of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” but that sure was different than anything I’ve heard done. He carried the whole idea of keeping everything within almost an octave. He barely got out of the octave that he was doing the bass line in. To maintain that and to sustain it, that really held my interest. I expected it to lose me. But he stuck right in there, and it made it right from beginning to end. Very nice. It’s odd when someone decides to go out on a limb and say, “Well, I’m going to do all of these awkward intervals, then I’m going to make a bass line and put something on it.” It’s very inventive. 4 stars. This got 4 stars because of the fact that the pianist heard it, said, “Now, here’s something I can do with these kinds of intervals; I’m going to do these on well-known changes, but I’m going to take somebody’s melody that’s off the wall, and I’m going off the wall with that.” It was very inventive, I thought.

5. David Hazeltine, “Sweet and Lovely” (from ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Venus, 2004) (Hazeltine, piano; George Mraz, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

“Sweet and Lovely.” I love the way the pianist sets something up harmonically, and follows it through both with the voicing of the chord that he’s improvising on, and the manner in which he structures the improvisation. It shows a continuity that I really like. You don’t hear enough of that. You hear it in Hank Jones and some of the guys of my generation, but this sounded like a younger pianist who was doing that. [Why does it sound like a younger pianist?] I don’t know. There were things that were very much older in terms of what he was playing. But if this is an older guy, he’s young in spirit, because I get the same rhythmic thing. There’s a difference in rhythm that not all of us retain when we get older. I loved the rhythm section. It was perfect. It laid it right down. It enhanced the piano sound, because he’s got a good touch, a lovely touch, and the bass was right under it, laying with him. I’ve played that tune many times, and they were doing some slightly different changes… That’s why I was thinking this was someone younger, or he was listening to younger guys. This is a whole tune, it’s been done a zillion ways, and he put some stuff in there that was really beautiful. 4 stars.

6. Jean-Michel Pilc, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from FOLLOW ME, Dreyfus, 2004) (Pilc, piano; Fats Waller, composer)

This is the first one that didn’t hold my interest as much as I would like. That’s one of my favorite Fats Waller tunes, and you can take it outside and do a lot of things with it. It’s interesting, but this didn’t interest me that much. It didn’t swing enough or long enough, it didn’t hold me harmonically enough. It was cute. I mean, it was different, it had nice things. But for me, if I were playing, it would be an experiment that was interesting, but I’d have to go back and try to find something else. It didn’t make it as an experiment. Something was missing. 2-1/2 stars [AFTER] I know Jean-Michel’s work, and I didn’t recognize him. I enjoy his work very much. But this didn’t work for me. He’s a very fine pianist. I have several things he’s done, and I like them. Because he’s adventurous, as you can hear. In more cases than not, it works.

7. Marcus Roberts, “Rickitick Tick” (from IN HONOR OF DUKE, Columbia, 1999) (Roberts, piano, comp.; Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums)

Another experiment that’s interesting, but doesn’t hold my interest very long. It’s nice, and many of the things that the drummer was doing remind me of Winard Harper, who plays drums with me. Winard does some things that are so rhythmic; they have a form that I like. So it’s kind of hard for me to hear someone else do that concept which I associate with him, and do it a little different. It’s not appealing to me in that regard. I’d give it 2 stars. [AFTER] When I’m accustomed to a specific thing in a style, it’s hard for me to accept something that doesn’t please me as much. I like Jason’s work. He’s a very imaginative drummer. I’ve watched him grow over the years from a young guy… He’s very mature in what he’s doing now. Generally speaking, I like what he does.

8. Randy Weston, “Portrait of Dizzy” (from MARRAKECH: IN THE COOL OF THE EVENING, Verve, 1994) (Weston, piano)

Those were three of Dizzy’s most interesting melodies to me, and an abstraction of those melodies is less interesting to me than to play the melodies themselves. Because they are some of the best melodies, to me, that came out of the bebop context. I was playing something for Tatum one time, and he said, “If you can’t make it better, don’t change it.” 1 star. [AFTER] He’s a good friend of mine, but that’s what I think. I’m surprised, though, because I love Randy’s work when he’s playing most things like that. What threw me is that I’m so used to hearing him play rhythm, and he’s so rhythmic and he plays so beautifully with rhythms. I guess that’s what I missed there. I’m embarrassed.

9. Hiromi, “Desert On the Moon” (from BRAIN, Telarc, 2004) (Hiromi, piano; Anthony Jackson, bass; Martin Valihora, drums)

Chick Corea? No? It sounded very much like him. Boy! The touch and some of the harmonies, I thought. That fooled me. Very nice, whoever it was. The kinds of things that he was doing there… I liked the touch, and I liked the way he balanced his playing. It was organized beautifully, arranged very nicely, I thought. Chick was the first one who comes to mind playing rhythmically like that and harmonically like that. Or maybe Keith Jarrett or someone like that. I liked the harmonic flow. I liked the general musicality of it. This style I think is one of the styles that seems to stick around, and there are many guys who can do something like that. But as I said, the thing that appeals to me is the combination of harmony, melody and rhythm, how that’s put together in an organizational way… It’s arranged beautifully, even though it’s not an arrangement per se. It has a nice flow. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know her work. As a matter of fact, I used her at the Kennedy Center. I should have remembered. I used her for the Women’s Jazz Festival. She’s one of the people I’ve been thinking about in that context. We haven’t done as much as I hope I will do with her. Because she really comes across. She’s very interesting to watch when she plays—as well as she sounds. She’s a very interesting player. It’s nice to run into young players that have a personality when they play.

10. Michel Camilo, “The Frim-Fram Sauce” (from SOLO, Telarc, 2005) (Camilo, piano)

“Save the bones for Henry Jones.” It’s very interesting that someone would take Nat Cole’s vocal and make that kind of an instrumental out of it. It’s very well done. He captured the spirit of it. It’s fascinating, though, because everybody I’ve heard so far, I haven’t heard the kind of left hand that I grew up with. I am interested in what many of these other younger players are doing to compensate for that. They’re not playing stride piano or any style of it, but they are doing something that’s a combination of walking and other things like that. Which is very good. It’s very up-to-date and makes it… I’m spoiled, because I came up with Fats Waller and Nat Cole and people who did that. But a lot of pianists who can stretch a tenth don’t choose to do that. They’ll do other things. 4 stars. It was very well done. [AFTER] I’ll be damned! I was just reading something about him. That’s funny. We’ve played together a lot, and I know he can stretch a tenth. But for some reason, he didn’t. But he didn’t have to. He did what he did, and it was very personal.

11. Onaje Allan Gumbs, “Dreamsville” (from RETURN TO FORM, Half Note, 2003) (Gumbs, piano; Marcus McLaurine, bass; Payton Crossley, drums; Henry Mancini, comp.)

That was beautiful. A nice way of starting a ballad and building it up into a nice flowing feeling there. I liked that. The tune is by Henry Mancini, and that’s one of his lovely melodies. I really like it. 4 stars. The guy has a nice touch, and used it in a lot of… I like it when it’s musical. One thing that I generally find missing in younger pianists is the rhythmic feeling. I’m not hearing as much of the rhythm as I’m accustomed to. I want melody, harmony, and rhythm, all three of them, in a different way. Sometimes I just lose the feeling of the rhythm. It’s melodic, it’s beautiful, it’s rhapsodic, or whatever the player intends for it to be. But for me, it doesn’t satisfy something I like to hear. That’s a personal bias, I suppose, but I like all three of the elements. I don’t mean that as an overall critique. I’m just saying that many of the things I hear younger players do doesn’t swing enough for me. And by their terms. I don’t mean swing like I would swing, but swing whatever their style, and really swing, make that rhythm happen. [AFTER] Onaje! Wonderful.

12. Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2, Concord, 1990) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

I know who it is, but I can’t remember his name. He used to live in the Poconos, and did a lot of stuff for Concord Records… Dave McKenna. I love his playing. He does this better than anybody I know. Those are some interesting lines he’s playing, man. They’re fascinating. Now, that’s a left hand! One of the things I pride myself in is what I do with the left hand, because it’s what I grew up with and I like to use it. But I love the way he used it, because that’s very personal. I remember years ago, when I first met Dave, I did a radio piece on him, and I was pointing out the fact that this was the most unique left hand I’d heard since Fats Waller. It was so personal and the way he did it was so effective as a contemporary way of doing basslines. 5 stars.

[—30—]

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Dr. Billy Taylor, New York

For Geri Allen’s Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2010

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.

* * *

“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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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