When Geri Allen first appeared on the scene, she caused a thrill for many jazz fans. Here was a new young pianist at once lyrical and risky, precise in her technique but daring to stray into the dissonant. Recording with musicians such as Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Oliver Lake, and Steve Coleman, Allen was one of the reasons that the 1980s seemed like a renaissance period for free-bop jazz.
In the decades that followed, Allen matured as an artist and issued interesting discs that featured larger groups, choirs, and all manner of styles. If the pace of her recordings slowed, their range widened — from playing in a quartet with Ornette Coleman to working in gospel music.
Flying Toward the Sound is a rare solo piano recording featuring a suite of music composed for her Guggenheim Fellowship. There is a good dose of the old thrill here, as Allen melds several influences — including Cecil Taylor and Herbie Hancock — into a personal vision. At times as meditative as it is dissonant, Flying Toward the Sound has a flatly programmatic element. It seems to tell a story in rhythm, with the song titles (“Dancing Mystic Poets at Twylight”, “Faith Carriers of Life”, “God’s Ancient Sky”) suggesting a spiritual journey.
The playing, however, is playful and daring rather than some kind of New Age blather. Check out the hopping pleasures of the aforementioned “Dancing Mystic Poets at Twylight” or the throbbing pulse of “Red Velvet in Winter”, which evokes what Keith Jarrett might sound like on a grounded, concise day.
I’d been thinking that Geri Allen had somehow gone flat in recent years, but I was wrong. She is just more catholic in the way she packages her intelligent, brave playing.