Primary Instrument: Vocalist
“As a singer, I feel very influenced by instrumentalists and by many classic instrumental songs,” says Karrin Allyson. “It’s tricky to put lyrics to the great, iconic tunes, because you want to do them justice.” For Footprints, her tenth Concord release, GRAMMY® nominated jazz vocalist Allyson made a bold step to do exactly that, however.
Joined by vocalese pioneer Jon Hendricks, by Oregon-based singer Nancy King, revered by jazz connoisseurs, and by signifying tenor saxophonist-flutist Frank Wess, of Count Basie fame, the always adventurous Allyson solidifies her position as one of the most talented and best selling vocalist working today, doing full justice to 13 classic instrumental tracks from the ‘50s and ‘60s, all marked by strong melodies, meaty harmonic progressions, and evocative, well-wrought lyrics, eight newly penned by lyricist Chris Caswell.
Hendricks contributes his lyrics to Horace Silver’s “Strollin’” and his own “Everybody’s Boppin,” both immortalized by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, while Allyson contributes a sweet lyric to the Duke Jordan bop classic “Jordu” on “Life Is a Groove.” Rounding out the program are “A Tree and Me” and “But I Was Cool” by Oscar Brown, Jr., a long-time Allyson hero, who had committed to participate on the project, but died not long before the September 2005 recording date. Propelling the flow are pianist Bruce Barth and bassist Peter Washington, each a long-time New York A-lister, and in-demand Portland-based drummer Todd Strait, a rising star who first played with Allyson when both lived in Kansas City at the cusp of the ‘90s.
“The thing I like about Chris’ lyrics is that they contain a real mixture of what life is all about,” Allyson says of her collaborator, who works primarily as musical director for pop singers Melissa Manchester and Paul Williams. “There’s a lot of heart and humor, and they aren’t too sentimental, but also have the bittersweet qualities which I think are very important in a great lyric. They fit the style of an era, but bring it into a more modern world.”
Out of Rochester, NY, Chris Caswell grew up playing jazz on the Hammond B-3 organ and later moved to the piano. He has collaborated or played with Cannonball Adderley, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Webb, Alan Bergman, and Cy Coleman, among others. For Footprints, he offers lyrics to three instrumental Adderley classics, “All You Need To Say” (“Never Say Yes”), “I Can’t Say” (“Teaneck”), and “Give Me A Break” (“Unit 7“), as well as the Wayne Shorter title track, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” (titled “Something Worth Waiting For”), John Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird” (“Lightning”) and “Equinox” (“A Long Way To Go”), and Hank Mobley’s “The Turnaround” (“I Found The Turnaround”). “These are the coolest tunes of the coolest period ever,” says Bill McGlaughlin, the eminent National Public Radio host and composer/conductor who is Allyson’s long-time collaborator. “But Chris’ songs are very warm, and they’re warm without using bop talk. It’s all heartfelt.”
Now a popular and critically acclaimed fixture on the jazz landscape, Allyson established her mastery of lyric interpretation on nine previous Concord releases, including the GRAMMY nominated Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane, In Blue, and Wild for You. The singer projects an instantly recognizable tonal personality, illuminating hidden layers of emotion within songs that are drawn from a vast well of styles and genres—from the blues, contemporary pop, and the American Songbook, to the bossa nova, chanson, and the more specialized jazz and bebop repertoire. Indeed, Allyson husky tone can, “makes palpable the carnal, the romantic and the spiritual, sometimes all at once” (Downbeat Magazine).
What really separates Allyson from her peers is her ability to communicate oceanic emotions with minimal artifice. “The idea of craft permeates her music,” wrote Richard Cook, author of the “Penguin Guide to Jazz Records,” in a 2004 performance review that admirably encapsulates Allyson’s qualities. “One of the most appealing things about her singing is its lack of mannerism. There are no dopey melismas, nothing of that afflicted gospel soul feel that a lot
of younger singers depend on. She doesn’t try anything foolishly acrobatic. Yet in her way, she’s an ambitious and adventurous performer. She sometimes puts in a scat chorus which is done almost diffidently, without showoff contours. She’ll take over a familiar lyric and make it sound fresh by use of quiet touches—sitting back on certain beats, turning away from a big line and highlighting a different one.”
These are attributes which Allyson shares on Footprints with Nancy King, with whom she blends beautifully on the title track. “When we started this project, we had several great personal losses,” Allyson reveals. “Oscar Brown died, and then Nancy’s son was killed in a motorcycle accident only two weeks before she came to New York to record.” Perhaps that tragic back story accounts for King’s otherworldly harmonic accompaniment to Allyson’s straight-from-the-heart reading of Caswell’s hymn-like lyric for the song: “Memories are landmarks that comfort and assure me, you’ll be with me always. Follow the footprints we left, and I’ll find you there. Times changing currents can drown you in a deluge. Painted in still life, the past becomes a refuge, free from pain and sorrow. Follow the footprints we left, and I’ll find you there.”
Together, Allyson and King perform in unison again on “Never Say Yes,” “A Long Way To Go,” and “Life Is A Groove,” as well as exchange inspired scat choruses with Hendricks on “Everybody’s Boppin.’” “In my opinion, Nancy is one of the best singers on the planet, with her own voice, a living legend to my mind,” Allyson says. “And I love Jon’s lyrics; I’ve done so many of his songs since I first heard Lambert, Hendricks & Ross when I was at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. That’s also where I first heard Oscar Brown, on the album Sin and Soul.”
Born in Great Bend, Kansas, a prairie town on the Missouri River, Allyson came of age in Omaha, where her parents—her father was a Lutheran minister and her mother was a psychologist, schoolteacher and classical pianist—moved when she was six. She became a serious classical piano student, eventually making it her major in college, where she first performed professionally, paying tuition as a singer-pianist on introspective ‘70s pop (Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Janis Ian) and on funk-rock repertoire with an all-female band. She caught the jazz bug from fellow students, and began to listen to Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk. She pored through books, and applied her lessons at local jam sessions. “I got hit pretty hard,” she says. “I loved the beautiful stories in those songs, but quickly realized how exciting it was to be able to improvise and swing to vary tunes and suit your own style. Singing started to take first chair.”
Allyson moved to Minneapolis, and developed her craft over the next three years. Then she answered a call for help from her uncle, Ron Schoonover, who owned the Phoenix, a jazz club in downtown Kansas City, and found himself suddenly without a singer. “My father and grandfather talked him into giving me a test job, and I ended up moving there,” Allyson recalls. “Kansas City was very soulful, and it always felt like home. The Phoenix had music from 5 until 2, and different shifts of local players would come in. Musicians who were in the movie ‘The Last Of The Blue Devils’ played there, and that’s where I met the guys I still work with, like [bassist] Bob Bowman, [pianist] Paul Smith, [guitarists] Danny Embrey and Rod Fleeman, and [drummer] Todd Strait. I became pretty much a fixture as a Kansas City bandleader, and kept a lot of people working.” A New York City resident since 2000, Allyson projects throughout Footprints the blues-as-catharsis principle that underpins the Kansas City tradition.
The message for this new project, as in most great jazz, is optimistic and regenerative. “I always refer to my CDs as my babies,” Allyson says. “This project is my tenth, and I’m especially proud of it. I was fortunate to work with some truly great collaborators, my idols, and together we gave birth to fabulous recording. The lyrics are like poetry and the music is so alive, energized.”