SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Prophets from the Edge
Geri Allen | Spontaneous composition
PAM DIXON is a San Diego-based arts writer.
The elegantly understated jazz insider, Herb Jordan, is sitting in a Beverly Hills cafe looking for all the world like a Cheshire cat.
He is recalling a rehearsal by his friend, the pianist and composer Geri Allen, last August at New York City’s famed jazz club, the Village Vanguard.
“Let me describe to you one of the great moments in music,” he says. Knowing that Jordan rubs elbows on a regular basis with jazz legends, his take on a great moment is worth listening to.
“Geri had been rehearsing for several hours, and her baby daughter, Barbara, had just had it — she refused to be held by anyone but her mom,” Jordan says, raising his eyebrows for emphasis.
“Without missing a beat, Geri took the baby and finished the song she was playing. With her right hand, Geri played the piano and flawlessly led a seven-piece band of some of the top jazz musicians in the country. The whole time, she bounced baby Barbara in her left arm. She was in complete control. Meanwhile, the music she was playing was something so different, so completely new, that people were standing on the sidelines, just watching in amazement.”
Allen, one of the innovators featured in “Artists on the Cutting Edge VII: Cross Fertilizations,” has earned every bit of the awe she inspired that evening, which featured songs she composed for her 12th album, “The Gathering.” She’s also contributed to more than 60 other recordings. But citing the quantity of the 42-year-old’s work doesn’t even begin to relay the extraordinary nature of her music.
Allen’s early playing was often called “brilliant.” But now she is described as something between a strong individual voice and a daring composer who may be planting the seeds of a new genre.
Her newest work is harmonically complex, rhythmically adventurous, melodically gentle, and infused with an airy, exotic feel. “The Gathering,” which was released in August of ’98 and exemplifies her new approach, consistently made it onto the year-end top 10 lists with words of effusive praise.
“One of the things you’re always looking for in an artist is a sense of completeness. So often in jazz, artists focus on one or two aspects of their playing,” says Chuck Mitchell, who signed Allen on as an artist when he was president of Verve Records. “Geri has mastered all the aspects of her music; she makes her own statement. Within the next decade, if she continues, we’ll be ranking her with the Herbie Hancocks of this world.”
Allen, who brushes off such high praise, had the good luck to be born in Detroit, where a vibrant and generous jazz community nurtured her. “I got the bug very early on,” Allen says in her soft, precise voice. “I started learning piano around 7, and it wasn’t very long until I wanted to get more out of the musical experience than just playing what was in front of me. So I started writing music. They were just little ditties, but they were the beginning of my writing.”
Allen’s high school experiences are a story by themselves, because she attended the famous incubator of great jazz talent, Cass Technical High School. There, she studied under the formidable trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who was an important mentor for her.
“He took a lot of us under his wing, ” says Allen. “He heard my songs and took me into the studio with a lot of great musicians who were in Detroit at the time. That established a confidence level for me, that I could do it.”
It was at Cass that Allen learned to improvise, a skill that would later become the cornerstone of her composing technique. “Improvisation is a form of spontaneous composition, ” she says. “It’s been handed down over and over again, but a lot of it comes through transcriptions and analysis and through imitating and putting yourself in the presence of the musicians.”
After making her parents just about faint when she told them she wanted to be a professional jazz musician, Allen went on to earn a jazz studies degree from Howard University and a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh.
“College gave me a vacuum to live in creatively,” she says. “I didn’t have to worry about how to make a living, all I had to do was practice.”
And prepare for New York. “For jazz musicians, if you want to be great, you have to make `The Pilgrimage,’ ” says Jordan, who has advised Allen on many of her career moves. “Sooner or later, you have to go to New York, and you have to be ready when you go.”
Allen was ready. In 1982, when she graduated from Pitt, she headed straight for the Big Apple. Thanks to her wide range of stylistic abilities, she was immediately accepted into the New York jazz fold, playing with a high-level crowd.
Her edgy performances eventually led to a collaboration with the legendary Ron Carter and Tony Williams, with Allen as the bandleader. When someone at that level takes a chance on a younger artist, it is a way of putting a very public stamp of approval on the person’s work.
Finding her own voice
The album that resulted from that 1994 collaboration, “Twenty One,” proved to be Allen’s bust out of the rank and file. ” `Twenty One’ was the breakthrough record for me and probably one of the highest creative experiences of my career, because of Tony and Ron. They are two of the great innovators of music. When you sit in the presence of people of that caliber . . . ” She pauses. “There just aren’t many people like that. It turned me around.”
On the album, Allen dared to play a few of her own compositions. Flashes of something individual came out, but not terribly strongly. Listening to it in retrospect, it was a great jazz trio album, and a step toward something more. That is, the individual voice she achieved on “The Gathering.”
In “The Gathering,” Allen’s compositional style became completely her own. Her writing grew to be rooted deeply in the nature of who she is as a person, and as a result, it developed its own gravitational pull. The album is amazing not just because of the playing on it, but because of the new possibilities Allen’s composing opens up.
“Jazz has suffered from swinging to cerebral on one hand to highly emotional on the other, without much in between,” says Mitchell. “A very strong aspect of what Geri does is the way she reaches inside and outside. She assimilates the avant-garde yet operates within tonal centers. She has a very good way of traveling inside all of those boundaries.”
To be specific, Allen synthesizes diverse jazz influences, from the Harlem Stride School to hard bop to world music, and then she puts her very distinctive melodic and modern harmonic voice into it. “Geri has brought together elements of so many different influences in a harmonically comfortable way and in a way that has not been done before. It can potentially spin out into a new genre,” says Jordan.
How does Allen view her newfound maturity? “For me it’s a comfort with not playing all the time, with allowing the things around you to help to mold your solos and the direction that the music takes as opposed to feeling like you have to be directing everything and make everything happen. Instead of `note-iness,’ it’s more of a riding a wave and flowing with the energy as opposed to making something happen.”
The next thing on Allen’s plate, other than composing for “something big, maybe a chamber orchestra,” is a long career talk with Jordan. “What is happening in the record industry is monstrous,” he says with obvious disgust, referring to the current Seagram-PolyGram megamerger in which hundreds of artists have been dropped as individual labels are consolidated. “Verve is dropping at least 50 percent of their artists.”
But Jordan’s smile isn’t gone for long. “Geri is a force of nature. You can’t hold someone like her back. She will make it up there with the Thelonious Monks of this world, you just watch.”
Listenin’ to the Geri Allen sound “The Printmakers” (1984), “Homegrown” (1985), “Open on All Sides in the Middle” (1987), “In the Year of the Dragon” (1989), “Twylight” (1989), “Segments” (1989), “The Nurturer” (1990), “Maroons” (1992), “Twenty One” (1994), “Eyes in the Back of Your Head” (1995), “Some Aspects of Water” (1996), “The Gathering” (1998).
She has also participated on the following artists’ albums (a selection): Ornette Coleman, “Sound Museum,” “Hidden Man,” “Three Women”; Betty Carter, “Feed the Fire”; Wallace Roney, “Crunchin’ “; Oliver Lake, “Expandable Language”; Me’shell Ndge Ocello, “Plantation Lullabies”; T.S. Monk, “Monk on Monk”; Charlie Haden, “Montreal Tapes With Geri Allen.”