Geri Allen: The Life of a Song

Geri Allen
The Life of a Song

Geri Allen hasn’t recorded, it seems, in quite some time. I did read some distressed references to a Verve contract she had possessed and ceased to have a few years back, but missed both the story and the recordings, though she did play a wonderful set I attended at a European jazz festival back then. My recommendation of friends to a gig of hers in Germany, alas, proved a disappointment for them.

Among recordings I have of her, one on Blue Note and another on a smaller label were somewhat different from a couple of things I seriously cherish, on which the roles filled here by Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette were taken by Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. The recording I like least is entirely solo, and early. The best thing on it subdues a general relentlessness by being a Thelonious Monk composition.

Allen’s singular distinction has always been a remarkable gradation of touch, allowing a remarkable range of options of phrasing — options for which she can at times be singled out. Her musical vision can, however, narrow, and become insistent to the exclusion of a lot of what keeps taking me back to some of her recordings.

Here she does seem only a little more insistent than I care for, unless perhaps she’s (in terms sheerly of prominence in volume and distinctness) over-favoured by the recording system Telarc make a great deal of on their website.

“LBWs House” is the opener, like the second title “Mounts and Mountains” an example of her dark lyricism, which has a strong European rather than jazz accent. “Mounts” does have an interesting solo from Holland, which concludes on a repeated figure across which Ms. Allen re-enters in a kind of recapitulation of the theme. A few glissandos and the trio plays out over DeJohnette’s rippling drums.

There’s a certain remoteness to Allen on this disc. “Lush Life” doesn’t get a treatment specially distinguished for vocal quality, except in Holland’s solo, which has warmth and tenderness where the pianist is slightly too aristocratic in manner. Her sympathy is, at times and here, on the limited side, even where there’s a lyrical breeze now and then in her playing. She seems at times, again here, able only to play her own music. “In Appreciation” is queenly even where it ventures into older-style funk phrasing. There’s a lot of control, every note assayed but the feeling overall not that receptive to personal feeling.

The problem with a pianist so utterly consistent in her sound is the lack of rapport with other tunes, and with the sounds other musicians make. Holland and DeJohnette are not terribly penetrating performers; there’s not a great deal of give and take, or that much mirroring. They may play the same notes, or be integrated in terms of note values, but they do not blend. She and Holland work well together on “The Experimental Movement”, but they are not as one.

“Holdin’ Court” is as good an example as I can offer of Holland making a big sound and reaching everywhere, but he still remains a separate part of the combination. She is not pushed by him; there is neither the resistance nor tension which can be set up between two players, nor the echoing or mirroring already mentioned.

There is very close accord in the balladic slow prelude to Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels”, and a genuine melodic invention, but the nearest to the tune’s original Dionysian abandon comes in just the bursts of rolled drums, and the firm tread of the walking bass. Geri Allen continues to play Geri Allen, without abandonment to swing. Still, there is a nice sudden end to the proceedings.

“Unconditional Love” marks something of a change; the regal voice softens somewhat, the pianist and the bassist are suddenly much closer, there’s an abdication of the grander manner, and something nearer to vocal expression in the gradation of touch and empathetic echoing of the bass, as if here she has heard him for the first time and is communicating her own changing feelings rather than performing an exposition of loft instrumental music.

The title track seems to find her very emotional and at the same time uncertain. Holland gets a workout and with the preceding track and the opener (and maybe the second) we’re not in the subjective remote.

She does tend to spin out characteristic phrases as if they belonged where she belonged and that wasn’t quite here.

The closing “Soul Eyes” is much better; the drummer for once really seems to be with her, and the bassist likewise. Her own too individual because too exclusive lines suddenly cede to the melody, and as one is getting used to this it’s not something new to her which comes in but the beautiful flugelhorn of Marcus Belgrave, who after his solo plays in arranged ensemble with trombone and saxophone. It’s really exquisite. To listen immediately afterward to the opening title again is to appreciate the singularity of Geri Allen’s harmonic and melodic invention. To remember a great deal more of the CD as one does so is for me to feel serious doubts as to quite how far this can actually be taken. I would rather hear her alternate this with a hornman or three, or in programming a CD continue her very obvious earlier interest in Herbie Nichols. The opener reinstates its appeal with a passage of speeding up, and “Mounts and Mountains” has certainly a lot to it qua composition. But there have always been questions about the problems of composers performing their own works. Telarc’s blurbist tells us that “Allen has consistently demonstrated a bold, authoritative approach”, which if true could be a powerfully valid criticism.

When she’s interesting, she’s very, very interesting, but that needs some offsetting. Holland really takes over the interest in “Mounts”, maybe even rescues it, except he doesn’t project as forcefully as would make something really special of this title. Why can’t she get into “Lush Life”? Why has her extreme individuality dominated a number of her recordings with narrowing effect? Why are some of the middle tracks of the present CD too sheerly exercises of her individual voice not saying all that much? I’m probably severe because I expect so much from her, but I think the interest of this set restricted, and uneven, because it’s too much too narrowly of her.