Geri Allen

Goodbye Geri

The shocking passing of Geri Allen at 60 is not just sad news for jazz fans around the world. It’s a reminder that African American art is part of a cultural and historical continuum. Geri Allen was a driving force for the dissemination of black art, a voice combining the radical edge of free-wheeling improvisation and a deep-seated acknowledgment of her elders and the tradition. Her piano style mixed the jaggedness of Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor and the sophisticated harmonic territory of Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. In fact, she acknowledged the influence of all four, especially on her much recommended solo album Flying Toward The Sound. But check out any of her album and her unmistakable touch stands out, a rock-solid groove that thundered from the left hand but never got in the way of a profound lyricism.

I was lucky enough to catch one duo gig of her with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel a few years ago in Paris. Her piano sounded like four hands running across the keyboard. The audience was appropriately euphoric, myself included.

It seems that the music sections of the specialized and mainstream press have published obituaries acknowledging Geri Allen’s huge contribution to the music world. In a still largely male-dominated jazz culture, I’m hoping that this sad news will shine the spotlight on the countless women improvisers that have come up in the last decades and rejuvenated the art form not because they are women but because they are great, period.

Selected discography :

Homegrown (1987)

Etudes (1988), with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian

In the year of the dragon (1989), with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian

Twenty One (1994), with Ron Carter and Tony Williams

The Life of a Song (2004), with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette

Flying Toward The Sound (2012)


In steady rotation

2013-12-15 12.11.16

As 2013 draws to a close, wellyouneedit celebrates its one-year anniversary. How did that happen? It’s been a bumpy road and I’m still not sure why I bother to put these thoughts out there. Oh well, for writing’s sake, I guess, which is a pretty good reason, isn’t it? Here, I want to thank my handful of faithful readers scattered around France and the globe. You know who you are.

The year-end lists are flooding the Internet. With a jazz-heavy listening and playing schedule to handle, I simply don’t have the time to check out the plethora of good “non-jazz” music released in this day and age. As a music fan, though, I like to think that this thing called jazz is not as insular and monolithic as the naysayers would have you believe. Today’s prominent improvisers tap into all kinds of music and extramusical sources to shape their path in the continuum. The result of that blending process doesn’t always work but it is integral to this art. As the aggressive debates raging on the Internet and the blogosphere show, the term jazz is very restrictive and contentious in many ways. Specifically, it doesn’t acknowledge the shape-shifting qualities at work in spontaneous collective improvisation, and it doesn’t do justice to the musicians who have continuously pushed the envelope to move the music forward. But for lack of a better and all-embracing term, we’re just going to have to stick with it for a while! If there’s anything to change about the presentation of jazz to the neophyte, it might involve defining it not so much as a music style per se as an approach to addressing and appropriating musical content – Duke Ellington or Bjork, it doesn’t matter.  The purists will take issue with that view, but the purists are wrong. Get real, purists! Trying to dictate what an art is and what it is not is a pointless struggle. The following list is a random and unrated selection of albums that played on a regular basis or caught my ear, here at wellyouneedit, in 2013. Inevitably, a lot of it is jazz, but in my book good music transcends category. Enjoy.

Dave King, I’ll Be Ringing you (2012)

With fellow Minnesotans Bill Carrothers and Billy Preston, the drummer revisits the standards with haunting introspection.  A well-tended fire smolders through this quiet record.  Huddle up, make some tea and kill the lights. And swing by the wynit archive for the short album review.

Brad Mehldau Trio, House on Hill (2006)

I finally decided which of Brad Mehldau’s albums I would take on a desert island. Right down to the enlightening liner notes (on Bach, Brahms and Monk), this one is a stellar document of the early trio (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy). Strong compositions and high-caliber playing for all involved.

Orrin Evans, Flip the script (2012); Blessed ones (2001)

The ability of these tight trios (bassists Eric Revis and Ben Wolfe and drummers Nasheet Waits and Donald Edwards) to bend the swing tradition and honor it at the same time keeps astounding me. The demotion job on Autumn Leaves will have you scratching your head first time around but sound magically obvious after a few listens.

Matana Roberts,  Mississippi Moonchile (2013)

A powerful artistic statement from the great alto saxophonist and multidisciplinary artist. This beautiful suite is Roberts’ personal take on Black American history, specifically through her female lineage. The music is a seamless collage/conflation of the various strands of African-American music. The fascinating story continues.

The Bad Plus, Made Possible (2012)

Epic melancholia, joyful abandon, frantic energy and telepathic cohesion. The trio does make anything possible. In the words of drummer Dave King « this band contains some of the most punk energy I’ve ever seen or heard as a musician ». But make no mistake, this is unquestionably as tight and honest a modern jazz trio as it gets. Watch the EPK for their 2012 record and check out the amazing discography.

Vijay Iver Trio, Accelerando (2012)

The award-winning pianist has the critics divided. Undaunted, I listen to the staccato rhythms of bassist Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore and nod to the vibe.

Glenn Gould,  Bach English Suites , Inventions & Sinfonias (1982)

To think that all of Bach’s keyboard music was conceived for the harpsichord is confounding, especially when played by Glenn Gould on piano. Timeless.

Mark Turner, Yam Yam (1994), Dharma Days (2001)

Whether the album cover of Yam Yam was a wise marketing decision is a matter of personal aesthetics but the music shows off Turner’s tasteful lyricism and hugely influential voice on tenor. Dharma Days is the one to get. Features Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Reid Anderson (bass), Nasheet Waits (drums).

Eric Revis, Parallax (2012)

The potent bassist delivers a fine inside/outside jazz offering. Serious chops and burning grooves across the board. Features Nasheet Waits (drums), Jason Moran (piano) and Ken Vandermark (tenor sax and clarinet)

J Dilla, Donuts (2006)

The legendary hip hop producer probably owned a sizable record collection. This album splices together a nice selection of soul and rap cuts from the 60s onward. I usually play the first song and find myself listening through the album.

Geri Allen, The Life of a Song (2004)

In the company of such heavyweights as Dave Holland and Jack de Johnette, Geri Allen found sympathetic support to deliver her groove-packed set of originals and rearranged standards. There isn’t a weak moment in this program. Highly recommended.

Darius Jones & Matthew Shipp, Cosmic Lieder (2010)

Smooth-flowing dialogue between two singular voices of free forms. Shipp’s dark low-end tones take on a welcome brightness against Jones’ honking enthusiasm.

Melanie De Biasio, No Deal (2013).

With the pared-down instrumentation of flute, drums and keyboard, Melanie De Biasio’s enveloping vocals push through the ether with grace and a sense of subdued drama.

Drew Gress, Black Butterflies  (2005)

Lush writing, infectious grooves and free blowing make up this alluring album.For Craig Taborn’s solo on the song Bright Idea alone, this one is worth a good listen. Features Tim Berne (alto sax), Ralph Alessi (Trumpet), Craig Taborn (piano), Tom Rainey (drums).

John Coltrane  The Classic Quartet – the complete Impulse studio recordings (1961-1965)

Immortal. What would jazz have sounded like if that quartet hadn’t existed? Eternally inspiring.

Thelonious Monk

Do I really have to drum the point home? You have to get with Monk. Period.

Craig Taborn Light Made Lighter (2001)

Taborn’s debut album amply demonstrates his versatility in the classic piano trio format. A good place to start.

Butcher Brown – A sides B sides

On their self-released and generously free (cop it on their website) debut, Butcher Brown make instrumental groove music that sounds oddly new despite the overt references to 70s funk. An ideal moodsetter that doesn’t sacrifice musicianship for chilling’s sake. Check it out.

Elmo Hope, Complete Studio Recordings

What a tragic life his was. It’s time to restore Hope’s profound contribution to modern jazz piano music. No less than Monk’s best friend and favorite player.

Julia Holter  Loud City Song (2013)

Wow. This one almost didn’t make my list. There is definitely more than ambient and pop to this music. But for now I’ll settle for uncategorizable.

And countless more to satisfy the music junkie’s appetite but that I’m too lazy to write a single word about.

The Sound of Soul

The year-end top ten lists are rolling in on the Internet and I still don’t know where in the world 2012 went. A good excuse not to go through the ordeal of finding ten albums actually released in 2012.

The adjective soulful has to be the hardest to define and translate into French (presumably into any language). Yet it immediately comes to mind when I reflect on the music I’ve listened to ad nauseam this year. Pianist Geri Allen and bassist Charlie Haden clearly stand out from the pack when I try to condense a year’s worth of intense listening. Both musicians have incorporated wide-ranging influences into their playing and artistry. Both have a profound sense of soul.

Charlie has a deeply resonant tone that’s immediately recognizable, a unique way to reach into the depths of the bass and extract its earthy substance. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to trace this sound all the way back to his boyhood days in Iowa as a bluegrass singer in the family band. One thing that keeps blowing my mind about his bass lines is their consistently singing quality, no matter who he plays with, from Ornette Coleman to Keith Jarrett. His style could be described as economical, lyrical, and deeply grounded. He often goes for a few well-chosen notes that he breaks down into descending or ascending motifs, like a melody moving in half or whole steps. One record I’ve been playing a lot this year is the Mehldau, Konitz, Motian Live at Birdland (ECM, 2011). Everyone plays ridiculously great here even though I wish Charlie’s accompanying lines had been a little higher in the mix. But when it’s Charlie’s turn to give his rendition of the standard, his lines unfold with amazing clarity and even the subdued but very present Paul Motian lays out. They all want to hear Charlie’s song.

Charlie also has a knack for quoting, and his inspirations range from La Marseillaise (I forgot on which tracks but he definitely digs this one!) to Lady Sings the Blues, on Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. The way he brings that up casually in his solo as if it was part of the tune is just insane. The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson is a huge fan and you can probably track down his insightful analysis of Charlie’s playing somewhere on DTM.

As for Geri Allen, she is definitely my favorite of the year. Her album The Life of a Song (2004)with heavy players Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette has been on the player about 50 times this year. Boy, can she lay down the groove and still sound highly melodic and inspired. Like Charlie, Geri runs the gamut of improvised music, equally at ease with free or straight-ahead jazz.  Mix in Herbie Hancock’s funkiness, McCoy Tyner’s modalism and Cecil Taylor’s percussive attack and you get Geri Allen. In fact, her solo album Flying Toward the Sound references these influences explicitly. How she synthesizes this lineage and still sounds like her distinct self commands attention. That, and her ability to imbue every song she plays with deep sensuality without succumbing to sentimentality. When I went out to hear Geri with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel earlier this fall in Paris, my jaw dropped so low I thought it might come off. Geri’s playing is so tight she’d put James Brown and Otis Redding to shame, with all due respect to these masters of soul. Am I right or am I right?

Selected recordings of Charlie Haden:

With the Ornette Coleman Quartet: everything!

Charlie Haden and Hampton Hawes,  As Long as There’s Music (Verve, 1976)

Charlie Haden, Geri Allen, Paul Motian, Etudes (Soul Note, 1987)

The Golden Number, duets with Keith Jarrett, Don Cherry, Hampton Hawes, Archie Shepp (Horizon, 1976)

Brad Mehdlau, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Live at Birdland (ECM, 2011)

Selected recordings of Geri Allen:

The Life of a Song (Telarc, 2004)

Flying Toward the Sound (Motema Music, 2010)

Twenty One, with Ron Carter and Tony Williams (Blue Note, 1994)

Etudes (Soul Note, 1987)

The Gathering (Polygram records, 1998)