A fantastic jazz trio gets somewhat stuck in a web of other voices and intentions -- but still plays great.
Geri Allen is a great jazz pianist, and that has never been in doubt. But if she started her career with a young person's swagger -- playing with firebrand elders like Oliver Lake and being promoted by institutions like Paul Motian and Charlie Haden -- then her years of maturity have seemed somehow muted and underwhelming. It's not a matter of her talent waning, but Ms. Allen has made a deliberate choice to record music that exhibits a certain jazz classicism. Her latest, Timeless Portraits & Dreams, as much as screams this on its cover -- not only in the title but also in clothing and make-up Allen wears -- and even in its font choice.
Soft focus, a gold necklace, shimmering lip gloss, and off--the-shoulder golden gown, then: "Timeless Portraits and Dreams". Does this sound like a ripping jazz album or some kind of complicated history lesson?
No doubt: Ms. Allen is a straight-up class act, but I'm afraid I miss the firebrand of yore. Timeless is assured in many places, but it's also choked with studied seriousness and distracting guest spots. It's a concept album of some sort, yet its finest moments seem beyond the concept entirely.
In her liner notes, Allen makes much of "Jazz" and its centrality to the African-American experience. She writes about "connections" and about "The Most High", and the program is plainly conceived as a kind of dialogue between the secular and the spiritual sides of this great music. Thus, the presence of The Atlanta Jazz Chorus and classical tenor Mr. George Shirley, both of whom contribute to the more serious elements of the album. But the truth is, the best parts of Timeless Portraits & Dreams are when the trio -- Ms. Allen, Ron Carter on bass, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, which is to say a very striking trio indeed -- are just swinging.
"Melchezedik" uses the chorus for wordless color, but the action is all in the trio's easy rapport and graceful swing. As Carter and Allen rumble a pedal point on the bottom, the leader spins various melodies that burst into the clear once the bassist drops four-on-the-floor and everyone starts swinging. During this section, of course, the vocals are simply shoved aside so the players can get to work. And so the superfluous nature of the choir is plain.
The disc's best sequence -- without question -- is a string of unfussy tracks at the center of the album that don't bother with singers and fancy footwork. It begins with the trio playing a straight-forward blues penned by Ron Carter, "Nearly", followed by a quartet tune with Ms. Allen's husband, the brilliant Wallace Roney, on trumpet, "In Real Time". Mr. Roney (as always, pleasingly reminiscent of 1960s Miles Davis, but with a healthy sense of individualized harmonic exploration) is pungent and perfectly in sync with the trio, blazing into his high register as the group lights him afire. The trio plays with gorgeous control on the Herbie Hancock-inspired arrangement of "Embraceable You", and with flexible surprise on Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha". Maybe best of all is the little-played Lil Hardin tune "Just for a Thrill", where the trio achieves a chamber-like balance of time, harmony, and melody, following a solo intro by the leader that suggests everything that's good in the jazz tradition. "Thrill" is given a ballad treatment where Cobb uses his brushes with mastery and Carter is able to fill every gap with his trademark glisses and vocalized slides.
But this wonderful streak of music simply makes the busier "concept" tunes on the album seem unbalanced and clumsy. "Well Done" is a gospel/soul tune by Kenny Lattimore, given a pseudo bossa arrangement featuring singer Carmen Lundy. No foul here, but when the jazz chorus enters behind Ms. Lundy on the repeat of the out-chorus, it seems like a resource wasted -- or used only because it was available. Mary Lou Williams's "I Have a Dream" features Donald Walden's tenor for 90 pleasing seconds, after which the operatic voice of George Shirley comes on, overripe and gospelized, atop the jazz chorus. Impressive in concert, no doubt, but jarring and awkward on this record -- and so short that it feels like the very definition of gilding the lily. The title track brings back Ms. Lundy in richly pleasing duet with Ms. Allen -- until the jazz chorus enters again toward the end to close oddly what felt like an organically developing, deeply intimate dialogue.
The album also comes with a second "bonus" disc containing only "Lift Every Voice and Sing" -- the African-American National Anthem -- sung by Shirley, accompanied by the trio and the chorus in utterly straight, non-jazz style. Intended to be pulled out and used in places other than your living room, I suppose, this tune underlines the serious intentions of Timeless Portraits & Dreams. Similarly, the title track is part of a suite Ms. Allen is composing for the victims and survivors of 9/11. But I can't help feeling that the most spiritual and meaningful music on this record is the good stuff in the middle -- the straight rapport of three or four musicians playing straight-ahead blues and jazz and showing how the magic of the African-American cultural heritage has created a mature, even classical art form. Without any choruses or operatic flourishes, Allen, Carter, and Cobb are all that anyone could need.
But within that narrow, straight-ahead context, perhaps the record label didn't find enough contrast or marketing pizzazz. Perhaps Geri Allen didn't feel the necessary "connections" or link to The Most High when she was just playing I-IV-V with a pair of legends. Or maybe I'm just being too fussy in not liking how this record asks me to change gears just when I’m getting into the groove. I think I'd like to hear all of Ms. Allen's 9/11 Suite, but the short gestures toward gospel and classicism here seems out of place and half-baked. I yearn for the darting focus of Allen's much earlier discs, which I urge you to scoop up.
It's not too late, in my opinion, for Geri Allen to suffer from an attack of mid-life nostalgia for the firey young polyglot pianist she used to be. C'mon, Ms. Allen: it's never to late to wear a pair of jeans again.