Thursday, June 17, 2010

Geri Allen: The Year of Perfection

Geri Allen (piano, b. 1957)

It's been awhile seen I last listen to Geri Allen, the Detroit native with I would call the female equivalent to Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk or Bud Powell. While some might say the obvious comparison might the great Mary Lou Williams, whom was an incredible pianist in her own right, Allen has shown a deep capacity for far ranging themes and ideas with each recording.

Allen has worked with a wide array of the best jazz musicians on the planet. Arguably her most famous association is a series of albums she did with the trio of Charlie Haden (bass) and Paul Motain (drums). If you stumble across any of these albums you should definitely pick them up. They are becoming rare (even though they have been reissued in the last 10 years) so I would highly recommend them as excellent documents of what a real trio can do at the peak of its powers.

Geri Allen has recorded over 16 albums over the last 25 years. Her albums are challenging in their concepts (gospel, spirituality, legendary tributes, Afro-American themes and more) but always deliver in a subtle manner that listeners can enjoy the experience while sometimes taking on journey through American culture.

It has been four years since Geri Allen's last record Timeless (Telarc). She has done a bit of session work during that time most notably an avant garde date with Trio 3 (Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake and Andrew Cyrile). But in 2010 she has released two albums in quick succession. Both are welcomed additions to the best albums of the year.

Flying Toward The Sound (Motema Music) is a solo piano suite inspired by some of her influences; Herbie Hancock, Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner. Flying Toward The Sound is beauty improvisational work that brims with creativity track after track. "Red Velvet In Winter" dedicated to Herbie Hancock but sounding nothing like. It is deep and wide in scope--almost classical--but important in vision. This a mastery of the piano at its finest. The manner in which Allen scales the keys here is astounding. The epic piece "God's Ancient Sky", obviously spiritual but powerful in its beauty and structure. There are very few jazz pianist who can make a stretch a piece like this through various emotional passages and still leave you wanting more. Flying Toward The Sound is by far one the best and comprehensive Geri Allen albums in years. If you enjoy solo piano works this is well worth your time.

Geri Allen's second album this year is a live quartet recording. Geri Allen & Timeline Live (Motema Music) is Geri's first full length live album and it delivers something completely opposite to the solo Flying Toward The Sound--Geri Allen as band leader. Live demonstrates Allen's ability to craft and guide a group through her complex recordings and incorporating something most people will have no knowledge of on record at least---tap percussion. The quartet consists of Maurice Chestnut (tap percussion), Kassa Overall (drums) and Kenny Davis (bass). Chestnut's tap (yes tap dance) percussion on the vibrant and powerful opener "Philly Joe" and its successor "Four by Five" are unique and powerful introductions to the evening.

Live is Geri at her most fierce. Her work her is killer and the rhythm section support and follow her with amazing ease. It is as if she has had this band for decades not a few years. The groups performances throughout are raw and infectious. On "Embraceable You/Loverman", Allen deploys her softer touch to the keys, allow the listener to become enveloped sound and emotion. The band join along with Chestnut's tap percussion join in midway, turning it into a lovely number by candlelight. We've had to wait 25 years for a live Geri Allen album and its been well worth it. I almost wanted to cry after listening to this. Highly Recommended.

Geri Allen is one of the few pianist today (Jason Moran for me would be the other) that continue to come up with new and challenge ideas. I hope they continue and hope you will get a chance to follow along. Geri Allen is definitely required listening.

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