Karrin Allyson returns to SF
by Jason Victor Serinus
Superb is an adjective frequently used to describe performances by jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson. The longtime Concord Jazz artist, whose 20-year performing career has yielded 13 albums and four Grammy nominations, is prized for the rare communicative power of her remarkably sophisticated, disarmingly direct vocalism. Her careful attention to words; the intelligence with which she molds her phrases; her unique sultry, husky voice; and her impeccably poised pianism inevitably pull listeners into her songs.
For her three-day, three-performance Labor Day weekend gig at the Rrazz Room, Allyson plans to focus on songs from her latest Grammy-nominated disc, Round Midnight. Called a masterpiece by Downbeat and "darkly beautiful and melancholic" by the Associated Press, the laid-back album melds classics such as Bill Evans' "Turn Out the Stars," Harry Carroll's "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," and Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" with a more contemporary classic, Paul Simon's "April Come She Will." Given the extraordinary intimacy of the renditions, it's safe to say that Allyson will leave audience members feeling as though they're spending an evening in the quiet comfort of her living room.
"Piano was my major in college," Allyson told the Bay Area Reporter by phone. "I never thought I was going to be a singer. But in Oakland, I started getting involved in theatre. I was the lead in two plays at Holy Names. So I guess I've always had a love for the dramatic part of music."
Drama, in the case of Round Midnight , is soft-pedaled, as if mellowed by a combination of wisdom and vodka.
"Storytelling is what I'm interested in," she said. "When I was in high school in the mid-70s, I discovered singer-songwriters like Carole King, Carly Simon, Janis Ian, Roberta Flack, Melissa Manchester, and Joni Mitchell. I fell in love with these songs that told stories. I'd buy sheet music to these tunes, and my piano teacher at the time, who followed my mom, encouraged improvisation. It wasn't like we were Bud Powell or anything like that, but we'd take little songs and do chord changes and try and improvise over them instead of just sight-reading."
After she got a scholarship for classical piano studies at the University of Nebraska, where she earned her degree, she thought that was the direction she would go. But when she would sing for friends or family, she received constant encouragement.
"I remember a friend saying, 'You know, you should listen to yourself, you really have something there,'" she recollects. "A little encouragement goes a long way for those who like performing, so that's when I started to do more of it. I tried for a couple of little restaurant gigs playing and singing, and really had to come up with a lot of material to keep myself and other people interested. That's how that moved to the other side, as it were."
Soon after Allyson recorded her first CD, in 1990, a woman who fell in love with her singing passed her CD along to Stan Dunn, a DJ at KJAZ-FM in San Francisco. After listeners went wild, Dunn introduced her to Carl Jefferson, founder of Concord Records. Before long, Concord had bought her self-produced CD, I Didn't Know About You, which it reissued in 1992. Twenty years later, her mastery has deepened.
Karrin Allyson performs Fri. & Sat., Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m., and Sun., Sept. 2 at 5 p.m. For tickets, see www.therrazzroom.com or call (415) 394-1189.