Listening to……Geri Allen

It’s hard to say when I first became aware of Geri Allen.  I suspect that it was around the time of her work with the late Betty Carter on a live album that may have been entitled ‘Feed the Fire’ after one of Geri Allen’s tunes -I guess this would have been back in the 90’s.  I had some friends who were madly keen on this album and whilst my usual indifference to jazz singers left me somewhat underwhelmed, Icould hear that the pianist on the session was a definite force to be reckoned with. 

The mid-90’s seemed to be a big time for women pianists in jazz; Marilyn Crispell had been around for a while, but suddenly Jessica Williams came out of the woodwork and started touring the UK at regular intervals.  Sarah Jane Cion released a couple of interesting cd’s on Naxos and Andrea Vicari was making cd’s on this side of the water.

Of all of these new players it was Geri Allen who most captured my attention.  She was signed to Blue Note, then Verve and produced a string of solo albums (‘Marooons‘ -Blue Note 1992 and ‘The Gathering ‘ – Verve 1998 were particularly good), often in trio settings, which she seems to favour.

Geri Allen

My next encounter with Geri Allen was actually not with her at all, but with her children.  In 2003, Allen was (and presumably still is) married to trumpeter Wallace Roney.  I had gone to the Iridium jazz club on Times Square to hear Bobby Hutcherson’s latest quintet, which featured  Roney as well as another woman pianist, Renee Rosnes.  Tucked up the corner near where I sat were 2 kids aged somewhere between 5 and 8 (I’m guessing) who looked on with solemn eyes as the band played and Daddy did his thing.   Someone told us that these were the Allen/Roney kids – no sign of Mom, so I guess she was working elsewhere.  Anyway, this was the early show, so I guess they were OK to still be up.  What a life, eh?  Raised in jazz clubs….bet they’ll have some stories to tell.

So, recently I’ve been listening to a series of recordings with Geri Allen – with a quartet in Berlin (1992), solo in Amsterdam in 1995 and with a trio in Amsterdam in 2001 – all radio broadcasts.  For all her apparent preference for the trio format, the recording that seems to suit her most is the solo concert from ’95.  She has always been a most muscular player, looking far more towards Bud Powell, Monk and Horace Parlan than to softer, more lyrical pianists like Bill Evans.  There’s little spare flesh on what she does and there is tremendous dynamism about her attack and delivery – I have to be careful here in case I stray beyond the bounds of my competence to comment (as a non-musician, that is!).

Her 1995 solo show features some great standards (‘ Dig!‘, ‘Countdown‘, ‘Introspection’ , ‘Lullaby of the Leaves’) alongside a couple of her own pieces – notably the aforementioned  (and unmistakable) ‘Feed the Fire’, with which she opens her set.  Playing alone obviously frees her from the obligations of accompaniment and it’s an opportunity that she seizes ‘con brio’ as they say in the trade.

By contrast, the 1992 Berlin performance with Graham Haynes on trumpet, Dwayne Dolphin (apparently his real name) on bass  and Tani Tabbal on drums sounds a little stiff., though some of the ‘Maroons’ numbers (especially ‘And they partied’) cook quite effectively. 

The trio seems to be very much Geri Allen’s preferred format and her discography is punctuated by frequent encounters with great rhythm sections – Paul Motian & Charlie Haden, Dave Holland & Jack de Johnette and so on.  The 2001 Amsterdam recording I’ve been playing features her with two Johnsons – unrelated as far as I know.  Billy Johnson plays bass and Mark E. plays drums and whilst the trio explore a number of Allen originals at length, I sensed a certain unfamilairity with the material on the part of the rhythm section resulting in a rather formulaic set.  That could be my ears deceiving me; I may need to revisit this one.

Now into her 50’s, Geri Allen seems to be pursuing parallel careers in both playing and teaching jazz, apparently teaching at the University of Michigan (she is a native of Detroit)  and featuring regularly in Charles Lloyd’s band as well as – intermittently – producing her own albums.  New listeners should probably start with one of Lloyd’s albums and one of her trio outings, perhaps the ‘Montreal Tapes’ album issued under Charlie Haden’s name or her own ‘The Life of a Song’ (2004).  Some of the larger ensemble albums like ‘Maroons’ and ‘The Gathering’ are also well worth investigating.

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