Wild for jazz
Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist/pianist Karrin Allyson rolls the grand piano onto the Big Room stage
I’m not one to fawn over celebrities, but I have to admit that I was a little excited about calling Grammy-nominated (2001, for Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane) ex-Kansas Citian Karrin (pronounced KAH-rin) Allyson recently at her New York City home. I’ve been a fan of the jazz vocalist/pianist for about 10 years, and I felt a bit “ga-ga.” I told her as much. Allyson responded with a sympathetic chuckle, thanking me in her hearty voice—a little more robust than her delicate singing voice—for the compliment and adding that she knew what I meant because she’d “been there” at times in her life as well.
Allyson’s discography is a music lover’s dream. Always supported by a top-notch band—most often her long-standing Kansas City cohorts, guitarist Danny Embrey, bassist Bob Bowman and drummer Todd Strait—Allyson’s albums are filled with memorable gems one longs for. Her version of the Oscar Levant ballad “Blame It on My Youth,” on 1994’s Azure-Te, is particularly breathtaking.
On 1996’s Collage, Allyson sings “Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)” in both English and French (a fan of singer Edith Piaf, Allyson minored in French in college), supported by the delightful fiddling of Claude “Fiddler” Williams, and Allyson’s gorgeous treatment of jazz standard “My Foolish Heart” on 1997’s Daydream (Randy Brecker’s flugelhorn solo and Bowman’s bass solo on this one are stunning) sets the standard in my mind for how that song should sound.
From Paris to Rio (1999), which focuses primarily on French and Brazilian tunes, is my favorite of her albums. Allyson said that a lot of people feel the same way and went on to muse about how nice it was to perform in Brazil recently: “[The Brazilians] are very generous when we try stuff in their language. … In Brazil, they start singing with you. Music is integrated into their culture. … Tom Jobim [iconic Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim] has an airport named after him [in Brazil].”
From Paris to Rio‘s “Parisian Thoroughfare,” I have to note, is supreme proof that Allyson is, to many, the best scat singer around—tasteful, not in-your-face and right on the money. She scats lines in unison with instrumentalists (even at a very quick tempo) absolutely perfectly.
British jazz critic Richard Cook, referring to a recent Allyson show in Rochford, England, praised “her absolute command of dynamics” and her “unfussy, elegant style” and stated flatly that he “wouldn’t want to miss any gig by Karrin Allyson,” even if it meant driving the two hours it took him to get to the Rochford gig. Cook also praises Wild for You (Allyson’s ninth album) as “one of the best truces between jazz singing and pop material I’ve heard.”
Wild for You is a collection of “pop tunes of my day,” as Allyson puts it, the stuff she listened to on the radio when she was a teenager—songs by James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Carole King, for example. Not one to stick only to jazz tunes (her excellent In Blue, from 2002, for instance, is a bluesy album, covering such tunes as “Evil Gal Blues,” “Humdrum Blues” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Me Like a Man"), Allyson sat down with producer/arranger Gil Goldstein prior to recording the latest and set out to make an album that she had wanted to make for a while. “Concord [Records] is really good,” Allyson shared. “Every project is my baby. I do have creative freedom.” Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me,” Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” Carly Simon’s “The Right Thing to Do” and Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” among others, get the inimitable Allyson treatment.
For her forthcoming Big Room show, Allyson will "be mixing it up, like I always do," playing songs from throughout her career. It promises to be a very memorable evening (and a good way to spend my birthday, by the way. Thank you, Karrin!).