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Howard University 2017 Jazz Ensemble: A Tribute to Geri Allen (HUJE)

Review of college group's latest album, part of which honors a departed Howard alumna and faculty member

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Cover of A Tribute to Geri Allen by the 2017 Howard University Jazz Ensemble
Cover of A Tribute to Geri Allen by the 2017 Howard University Jazz Ensemble

The late pianist Geri Allen, who died in June 2017 at age 60, was one of the first graduates of Howard’s jazz program and a member of HUJE during the late ’70s; she later became a Howard faculty member as well. This project honors her adventurous and confident spirit. First the 2017 ensemble digs into six wide-ranging standards, mostly from the bebop canon. Then the CD goes into flashback mode by showcasing the 1989 band’s exploration of Ornette Coleman’s beautiful “Kathelin Grey,” before closing with a three-tune segment that captures Allen herself performing early compositions with the 1977, 1978, and 1979 editions of the band.

The 2017 ensemble puts a strong stamp on Monk’s “Bye-Ya” before strolling at mixed gaits through Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker,” Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig of You,” Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem,” Horace Silver’s “Doodlin,’” and Johnny Griffin’s teasing “The JAMFs Are Coming.” Pianist Tristan Benton is a featured soloist on all six tunes. He and guitarist Theodros Alemu set the tone on “This I Dig of You,” while trombonist Jarvis Hooper is co-featured on the Griffin piece. The full ensemble adds splendid accents with solid section work.

The Allen segment shows what a musical force she was, even as an undergrad. She plays piano and sings with a soft, light sound over Arthur Dawkins’ soprano sax on HUJE 1977’s Latin-tinged take on “A Communion of My Soul.” Allen sticks to the keyboard on 1978’s “For Real Moments” and 1979’s “Give the Band a Hand,” a robust closer whose featured soloists include trumpeter Wallace Roney, a frequent musical partner to whom Allen was married from 1995 to 2008.

Originally Published