Geri Allen: “Clear…with Compassion”

Renee Rosnes chats with a fellow keyboard great

Lizz Wright (left), and Dianne Reeves (right) join the Apollo Theater audience in applauding Geri Allen at her celebration of jazz's great female artists, May 2013
ACS--Geri Allen, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington (from left)--perform at Wayne Shorter's 80th Birthday Celebration, Town Hall, NYC, June 2013

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As our March issue cover story, we published a conversation between the acclaimed pianist Renee Rosnes and the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Rosnes, a veteran of Shorter’s band, brought the sort of experience-based insight that marks the best musician-to-musician interviews.

For this year’s women in jazz special issue, we asked Rosnes, 51, to reprise her role as journalist for a chat with fellow keyboardist Geri Allen, 56. In late June, at a coffeehouse near their homes in New Jersey, the two artists talked for over two hours, covering Allen’s recent and upcoming projects, her musical development in Detroit, the importance of Mary Lou Williams, what she learned from Ornette Coleman, and much more.

RR: I thought we’d begin with your latest recording, Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations (Motéma). Growing up in Detroit, I imagine you were inspired by a lot of great music in the area. How did this particular project come together?

GA: Well, this is the last of a trilogy of solo-piano-driven recordings. The first one was completely solo [2010’s Flying Toward the Sound]. The second was solo-focused but with keyboards like the celeste, farfisa, clavinet and some other ancient kinds of instruments, but mostly piano [2011’s A Child Is Born]. There were some voices on it too. The second one was a Christmas record. This one is more solo-piano focused, but I also have [trumpeter] Marcus Belgrave joining me on three songs and [saxophonist] David McMurray. So out of 14 songs, 10 of them are solo piano.

This is something I had envisioned doing when I was conceptualizing the three projects. I’ve wanted to do it for many years, even before this.

RR: Can you talk a bit about the repertoire on the new album?

GA: The repertoire is Motown compositions: music by Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, songs by Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Supremes and some Marvin Gaye material too. I also did Gerald Wilson. Marcus Belgrave has a piece on it as well as Roy Brooks, the drummer, and one of my songs is there. It was important to have it mixed with the jazz greats from Detroit.

RR: There are no bass and drums.

GA: No bass and drums. That was [a] really scary [way] to approach those songs that are so dance oriented. It took me a long time to finish the record. I’ve been very intimidated about doing those songs. People love those songs and they don’t want people messing with them.

RR: But then your interpretations can open up a new world, and people will discover those songs in a new way.

GA: That’s what I’m hoping-that they’ll feel that way.

RR: I always love the experience of hearing a familiar melody and not being able to quite place it, and then realizing it’s a piece I know, but the context was so drastically different I didn’t recognize it at first. I can remember that happening with a certain Beatles song.

GA: Actually, I do a Beatles song on this record. It was Aretha [Franklin’s] version of “Let It Be.” I thought, “Why would you do a Beatles song? This is Motown music.” But in the same ways we look at the standard jazz repertoire, these artists took these songs and played them really differently than the way of the original composer’s versions. This is something that we’ve always done: take classic pieces of music and find our voice, and Aretha certainly did that with that piece. I don’t know that she did a lot of composing on her own, but the way that she would interpret these pieces-whether it’s Beatles repertoire or “Natural Woman” by Carole King-she would take these songs and make them her own.

“Let It Be” was a piece that I loved from early on, and was one of the first songs I learned to improvise on. I thought it was really important to do this piece, to represent her and the fact that she’s such an important artist, even though she wasn’t necessarily a part of Motown. The idea was to include these Detroit musicians who were so influential, and I couldn’t see leaving her out.

RR: I’m aware that Marcus Belgrave has been a very important mentor in your life, especially early on in your career. He was the first musician to take you on tour to Europe when you were still in high school. Tell me a bit about that experience.

GA: The tour was about a week long as I recall, and that was my first time traveling to Europe. We played at the original Bimhuis in Amsterdam. It was a small place in the basement. That was the main gig, and we also played a concert at Montreux. I think we spent most of our time in Amsterdam, but of course Montreux was the bigger venue. I remember that it was a very exciting time. He used to say, “Put your time into your craft and music will take you all over the world.” For us he opened up so many different kinds of doors.

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