Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Karrin Allyson: Collage Artist

Karrin Allyson

Not long ago, I had the chance to talk with film star Joaquin Phoenix, and our conversation got me thinking about Karrin Allyson. How, you ask, does one possibly relate to the other? What earthly parallel could there be between a brooding dramatic actor, whose professional musicianship extends solely to his impressive channeling of Johnny Cash’s guitar licks and vocal growl in Walk the Line, and one of the most dynamically inventive jazz singers of her generation?

One word: integrity.

Each has, since their respective emergences in the early ’90s, demonstrated an incorruptible professional ethic, defined by an intense creative inquisitiveness and a refreshing disinterest in celebrity’s shallow end, so unwavering that it seems hardwired into their DNAs. Blending heartfelt humility with keen self-awareness, both remain true not just to their art but also to their personal vision. Yet where Phoenix appears to wear his uncompromising individualism on his furrowed brow, Allyson keeps it more internalized. While she may outwardly suggest the pert, sunshiny patina of fellow Midwesterner Doris Day, inside there’s a fiery Dona Quixote willing, nay eager, to tilt at even the most imposing jazz windmills.

In recent years, Allyson’s escalating intrepidity has seen her paying imaginative homage to John Coltrane’s 1962 Ballads album; as she explained in the liner notes to Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane (2001), Allyson presents her vocal takes on the instrumental LP “in the same sequence, in much the ‘same way’ as Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones played it.” Then she carved a nontraditional blues path with the multihued #In Blue# (2002), and took an unexpected but richly fulfilling detour through the work of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Carole King and other pop idols that paved her musical adolescence on #Wild for You# (2004).

Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones played it.” Then she carved out a nontraditional blues path with the multihued In Blue (2002) and took an unexpected but richly fulfilling detour through the work of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Carole King and other pop idols that paved her musical adolescence on Wild for You (2004).

Now, Karrin (pronounced “Carr-in,” never “Care-enn”) Allyson takes her boldest step to date with her 10th Concord album, Footprints, an estimably respectful yet marvelously interpretive vocal reimagining of the Wayne Shorter title track and a dozen other equally iconic gems of the 1960s. Working with lyrics sculpted by pianist-turned-wordsmith Chris Caswell to Nat Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Mobley and Coltrane masterpieces, trying her own hand at lyric writing (to Duke Jordan’s “Jordu”) and reclaiming pairs of Oscar Brown Jr. and Jon Hendricks treasures, Allyson remains true to the roots of each while reaping a fresh, vibrant harvest.

“I’ve loved these songs for a long time,” she explains, “and whenever I heard instrumentalists do them, I thought how nice it would be if I could somehow incorporate them into my repertoire. You can do it as a vocalese, the way we did ‘Naima’ [on the Ballads disc]. That’s fun, too. Or you can try creating lyrics. But it was so important to me that the lyrics be good, because these are classic songs and I didn’t want to be putting cornball stuff to them. I have, for example, been working on lyrics for the tune ‘Footprints’ for years, but I never finished them.”

Enter Caswell who, Allyson rightly acknowledges, “is truly a craftsman at this.” He encouraged her to, she says, “do my own stuff.” They also tried collaborating. Finally, she decided she’d prefer “to do some classic instrumentals, not of the ’20s and ’30s but more modern stuff in this genre: Coltrane, Nat [Adderley], basically just some of my favorite tunes.” Caswell responded, says Allyson, “pretty quickly with lyrics for everything I had asked for, and I thought, ‘Well, this is really something,’ because not only were his lyrics really beautiful but fully matched the feel of the tune and the time of the tune-and by ‘time’ I don’t mean rhythm, but the time [it dates from]. I’m really picky with lyrics, and I feel with [pieces like] Coltrane’s ‘Lazy Bird’ and ‘Equinox’ Chris really captured the depth of the tunes.”

Surely rubbing musical elbows with the likes of Coltrane, Gillespie and Hendricks isn’t something the Kansas-born Allyson could have imagined, nor had any frame of reference for, as she grew up in Omaha. Her psychologist mother, herself the daughter of a gifted horn player and Bach scholar, was, she says, “a beautiful classical pianist. Also my mom and dad [a Lutheran minister] liked Simon and Garfunkel and Judy Collins and Harry Belafonte and stuff of the time with social statements because they were both very socially aware people. So there was a real mixture of music in our house, though there wasn’t any jazz that I remember.”

Loyal to her mother’s classical leanings, Allyson attended the University of Nebraska, graduating with a bachelor of music in piano performance. While in college, Allyson says, classmates began “to turn me on to jazz. They’d give me tapes of Dinah Washington and Thelonious Monk and Nancy Wilson to check out. I was already playing some folk music, and had started writing my own stuff in jam sessions during the year between high school and college, so I started to play in these little restaurants. I played a jam session at this one place-I don’t think I was even old enough to be in the bar, so I must have been around 18-and the owner came up to me and said, ‘I like your stuff, would you like a job?’ I said, ‘I only know about 10 songs,’ and he said, ‘That’s OK. You can just repeat them, and sometimes you can just play a song-you don’t have to sing everything.’ So that’s how I got started. And doing that really makes you learn a lot of tunes! You’re sitting there by yourself for four or five hours. You don’t want to get bored and you don’t want to bore the people who are listening, so you’re forced to learn. I’d do everything from Carly Simon to a Chopin prelude, some show tunes and, finally, a jazz tune or two. It would be interesting to go back and listen to me stylistically then, but, hey, I was tryin’!”

In terms of early vocal influences, Allyson says, “As far as storytelling goes, Nancy Wilson’s [1961 self-titled] album with Cannonball Adderley really got me. We do three of the instrumentals from it [‘Teaneck,’ ‘Never Say Yes’ and ‘Unit 7’] on Footprints. I even considered covering that whole album but decided to go this route instead. That was the album. I also loved Dinah Washington and, from day one, loved Carmen McRae. To me, she incorporates all the great aspects of a jazz singer. She’s got humor, she can improvise when she wants to, she’s poignant and she’s a great storyteller.”

After graduation, Allyson set out for Minneapolis, where she spent three years cementing her jazz footings. Then came a call from an uncle in Kansas City who, fortuitously, owned a nightclub and happened to be in desperate need of a vocalist. Early in what would end up a decade-long stay in the music-soaked Missouri burg, club goers began asking if Allyson had any CDs available. “I’d always say, ‘No!’ Then, finally I did it,” she says. “I borrowed the money from my family and friends and produced it with the help of Bill McGlaughlin [an accomplished classical musician and broadcaster who has been Allyson’s life partner since the 1990s] and we recorded it.”

One night, a woman from San Francisco turned up at a club date and arranged to have a copy of the CD (which had yet to be pressed) mailed to her home. “She gave me some money, and I had to write down, ‘When the disc comes out I have to send one to Susan Hogeland.’ She says she had to remind me. We didn’t know each other then, but now we’re best friends. So I sent it to her and she said, ‘There’s a gentleman out here who’s a wonderful DJ. His name is Stan Dunn, and he’s on KJAZZ every morning from 6 to 11 and he’s open to new singers, so I’m going to try and get him to play it,’ which she did. He played the hell out of it, and people started calling the studio in Kansas City to see how they could get the album. It turned out Stan was also the West Coast promoter for Concord Records. I called to thank him. He said he wanted to play the album for Carl Jefferson and I said, ‘Who??’ One thing led to another, and Mr. Jefferson flew me out to California; he bought the album from me, we repackaged it [as I Didn’t Know About You, which, like all of Allyson’s discs, is still in print], and that was the beginning of my long life with Concord.”

ollowing the 1992 release of I Didn’t Know About You, Allyson remained on a relatively safe, all-standards path for two more discs (Sweet Home Cookin’ and Azure-Té) before taking tentative steps toward a themed album with 1996’s Collage. “I remember,” she laughs, “my drummer, Todd Strait, said, ‘What are you going to call it?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, but it’s kind of like a collage of different things. We have some pop tunes, we have some standards, we have this and that,’ and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you just call it Collage!’

“Record companies do encourage you to have a theme,” she continues. “They want to know how to market the album, and writers want to know how to talk about it-they need something to grab onto. So I started thinking that way. But in order to think that way, you have to feel really sincere about it. So I use each theme to learn. For instance, From Paris to Rio [from 1999] is the first thematic album of mine that a lot of people remember. I was known for doing Brazilian stuff and French stuff, so I thought, ‘Well, why not do a mixture of French and Brazilian?'”

Soon after the release of From Paris to Rio, Allyson and McGlaughlin made the leap from Kansas City to New York City, a move she says was precipitated at least in part by the belief that when you’re located in a major world capital “people tend to take you more seriously, not that I’m saying that’s right.” Since the eastward shift, Allyson has, as a recording artist, remained the personification of the Sondheim-penned adage “I Never Do Anything Twice,” taking the musical road less traveled with each successive disc-which leads us back to Footprints.

As its development proceeded, two unforeseen events nearly sidelined the project. Eager to feature a trio of her musical heroes-Brown Jr., Hendricks and Oregon-based singer Nancy King-on the album, Allyson was delighted when all three agreed to participate. Then, before any of the tracks had been selected, Brown unexpectedly passed away last year. “I wanted to do something in his honor,” Allyson says, “so I chose to do two of his songs. I had already been considering ‘But I Was Cool’ but didn’t know anything about ‘A Tree and Me.’ Then I heard it on one of his CDs and thought, ‘What a gorgeous, beautiful thing and what a nice tribute that would be to him.’ Also, [the lyrics] pretty much sum up my own feelings about death.”

The next curve came just two weeks before recording was to commence, when King’s son Joel was killed in a motorcycle accident. “He was 39 or 40 years old, newly married and had a one-and-a-half-year-old baby,” says Allyson. “It was too sad. Still is. Nancy’s had a hard life anyway, and I felt to have this happen was just so unfair. I didn’t know if she was going to be able to do this, and when she agreed to still [come to New York for the sessions], I thought, ‘Wow!'”

Allyson and King blend so seamlessly on half of Footprints’ 12 tracks that it’s often difficult to recognize where one ends and the other begins. Particularly poignant is their pairing on ” A Long Way to Go” (based on Coltrane’s “Equinox”), which seems to relate directly to King’s loss, though Allyson believes that “the tune that really speaks to those things is ‘Follow the Footprints,’ but ‘Equinox’ is also a strong gesture toward them. Nancy was an absolute trooper. She came in and stayed with me part of the time because I wanted to take care of her, and she really, really did it!”

The high point of the King-Allyson union is “Life Is a Groove” (an adaptation of “Jordu” outfitted with Allyson’s lyric), a four-minute, pull-all-the-stops party that boisterously celebrates the joys of the jazz life. “I wrote those lyrics probably 10 years ago,” says Allyson. ” I remember I was driving from Minneapolis to Kansas City. It’s a seven- or eight-hour trip. I remember writing those lyrics en route. I was listening to the version of [‘Jordu’] by Clifford Brown, who is a huge favorite of mine, and that’s how it came about.”

As for Hendricks, Allyson has been acquainted with him “for a while, and I’ve done ‘Ask Me Now’ and ‘O Pato’ and a lot of his stuff. I was a huge Lambert, Hendricks and Ross fan and learned a lot by listening to them. Jon has always been very friendly and very encouraging to me. We’ve double-billed a couple of times, and he’s sat in with us. He is such a force. There were tons of tunes I thought about doing with him. When we settled on ‘Strollin” we wanted to do something different with it. He said he’d like to add another verse, so the day of the recording he said, ‘Give me 15 minutes,’ and sat down and wrote, ‘When I go strolling with this love of mine/I don’t need no one telling me she’s fine,’ and then, ‘When I’m trepidatious about the true spirit of my soul/I take my baby out for a stroll.’ I love that! He is so great. It was pretty special for us.”

In addition to the exalted presence of Hendricks and King (with whom Allyson closes the album with a blistering, three-way “Everybody’s Boppin'”), Footprints features a stellar rhythm section that traverses all stages of her career, beginning with longtime pal Strait, whom she’s known for 16 years and whose playing she considers “as versatile as my tastes. His Brazilian stuff is so beautiful, his bebop stuff is very cool and his time is excellent. I can’t stand it when drummers rush or drag. He’s just very tasteful and a beautiful human being.”

Allyson’s recording history with bassist Peter Washington dates to 2002’s In Blue. “Talk about being in demand,” she enthuses, “Peter is never available! We did get to do a live gig with him before this recording, with Nancy, and [pianist] Bruce [Barth] and Todd at Dizzy’s Club [at Lincoln Center]. It was for the Women in Jazz/Kansas City tribute, and it was a blast. We did mostly Charlie Parker stuff. Peter, I find, is so heartfelt in his playing. He never plays anything that’s superfluous. He’s got chops, but doesn’t feel the compulsion to overplay. He has a beautiful sound and is another beautiful human being.”

As for Barth, who has never previously recorded with Allyson, she conspiratorially confesses, “I’ve been pursuing him for a while! I think it was Steve Wilson, another fine, fine man, who turned me on to Bruce. Talk about versatility! We have a real simpatico approach to making music. He’s funny. He never takes himself too seriously, yet his music is very serious. He can play anything. I just love him!”

Allyson will crisscross the country through at least the early part of 2007 to support Footprints. With what seems a rock-solid relationship with Concord that’s well into its second decade, an ever-expanding audience and having reached yet another career apex with her most dynamically challenging disc to date, Allyson isn’t willing to entertain the notion that jazz, particularly as it applies to vocalists, is a dying art.

“I hate hearing that, because I don’t think it’s true,” she insists. “Certainly, we could all use more folks listening to jazz, which definitely has to do with getting out there and marketing it, but jazz is here to stay. There’s no way it is dying.”

Acknowledging that currently the field seems to be teeming with innovative singers doing all sorts of amazing things, Allyson jokingly concludes, “Way too many if you want my opinion!”

Listening Pleasures

Jeff Johnson, Near Earth (Origin)

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Facing Future (Mountain Apple)

Oscar Brown Jr., Sin & Soul (Sony)

Richard Bona, Reverence (Sony) Originally Published