Karrin Allyson is an ambitious contemporary jazz vocalist who now demands to be taken seriously. On the one hand, she and the folks over at Concord Records are willing to play a little game of Diana Krall — dressing Allyson up in slinky nightclothes and walking along the beach for a cover, and packaging each of her albums (she’s now put out an even 10) as a specialty disc — the bossa record, the blues record, the Coltrane ballad record. On the other hand, the content of Ms. Allyson’s recordings is challenging and uncompromised. A serious artist who will smile for the camera is still a serious artist.
Footprints is Ms. Allyson’s most hardcore “jazz” record, consisting of 13 jazz instrumentals that have been provided lyrics for straight-ahead but daring vocal interpretations. In addition, Ms. Allyson has given herself the challenge of collaborating with other significant artists: pianist Bruce Barth, who truly sparkles on his features; guest singer, lyricist, and legend (and whistler) John Hendricks, and an obscure but substantial Washington State vocalist, Nancy King. In the jazz Olympics, they would say that this record has a “high degree of difficulty”. No doubt.
The composers tackled here are hall-of-fame cats: Dizzy, Trane, Wayne, Nat Adderley, Horace Silver, then a couple by the recently-passed Oscar Brown, Jr. The lyrics for all but the Silver and Brown tunes are by Chris Caswell, and while he doesn’t entirely avoid the jive-cat-name-dropping that is common in lyrics set to jazz tunes (“I knew a cat whose name was Charlie Parker / And he play the alto sax really well!” — not his lyric, and thank goodness for it), the treatments are as good as this kind of thing gets. I know that the lyrics are important to any singer, but the essence of this record is, of course, how well Ms. Allyson and her band negotiate these great and swinging melodies and make them new as vocal tunes. The answer: remarkably well.
Ms. Allyson’s instrument is tasty. Pitch-sure and technically adept, her voice has the advantage of being more than in tune. The slight sandpaper quality that she has across all her registers is easy to enjoy. Without ever reaching for some fake “bluesiness” or gratuitous growls, Ms. Allyson feels like a jazz singer even when she’s singing the melody very straight. On the opener, Dizzy’s “Con Alma”, the voice is low and simple against Mr. Barth’s lovely solo piano and then a gently Latin-grooved band. There’s no strain or overt improvisation but simply syllables placed in swinging relation to the beat.
The two Coltrane tunes out to be good, as Ms. Allyson’s Coltrane ballad album was the high point of career previously. “Lazy Bird” (from Blue Train) dares some fancy footwork on the head, with Ms. Allyson singing dramatically behind the beat in polyrhythm before surging back into time — a rhythmically assured tactic. Solos by Frank Wess on tenor and Mr. Barth make clear that this is genuine jazz session. “Equinox”, a ballad, is bolder still, probably. On the second turn through the head, Ms. Allyson in joined in low harmony by Nancy King, whose voice shares a nubbly attractiveness with the leader. Together, they sound like something rare on records these days: two singers harmonizing in real time without obvious overdubs or plastic perfection. A similar sound is used on “Footprints”, which features a brilliant arrangement utilizing muted trumpet and avoiding the famous bass-line. Ms. King’s law harmony is a thing of drama a beauty on it’s own — a surprising melodic line that is the farthest thing from the obvious.
Ms. King gets a clearer feature on “Jordu”, taking the second A section, then harmonizing over the bridge and recap. Vinegary and distinct in comparison to the leader, she throws down some scat on the out-tag that wets your appetite. The two ladies throw it down on Nat’s “Never Say Yes”, a too-rarely-covered taste treat that gives them each a chance to bweee-dooo-bway with a combination of harmonic savvy and control. For a scat feast, however, it’s all about the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross classic “Everybody’s Boppin'” where they are joined by the composer. Taken at full tempo (that is, really fast), everybody swings like mad, with Karrin even copping a famous lick from Jon original solo from the 1950s. Mr. Hendricks is not in perfect voice, but when was he ever and — really — who cares. Someone quick clone him or freeze his DNA or something so that his infectious joy never leaves this world. Ms. King’s solo is actually kind of knowingly avant garde. When they all re-enter with a wordless counter-melody that makes them sound Basie-ish, you want to do more than tap your foot — you want to spin in place join in.
There are a two tunes that feel a little off to me — both of the Oscar Brown compositions. Ms. Allyson take on “But I Was Cool” is the kind of talk-sung sassy track that Ruth Brown owns but seems like a put on from Karrin. Maybe it works in a club, but the recording is a novelty tune gone wrong. “A Tree and Me” has the opposite problem — a dark and earnest track with its own serious gravity, it seems stranded on the wrong album perhaps.
Maybe the best thing about Footprints is Karrin Allyson’s willingness just to blend in with the band and swing. On Nat’s “Teaneck”, she sings the melody in unison with Mr. Wess’s tenor, handing him the first solo but coming back to scat deftly. Hank Mobley’s “The Turnaround” is a boogaloo funk tune with Mr. Barth on both acoustic piano and Rhodes, and it sells from the start. Taking on “Unit 7” doesn’t seem advisable, but there Ms. Allyson is — crying out high and easy at the end of the melodic line, peppery in tone and certainly swinging, then blending with the piano on a tricky written part. Like a good trumpet player but also like a good singer, Ms. Allyson sings the songs and runs the changes, knowing that jazz, deep down, is about catching the right combination of technical thrill and humanity.
My confession: I wanted to sour on this record as I listened to it for the third and fourth time. How many singers have ever done this truly well? Now I’ve listened to it for a fifth and sixth time. Heck, that’s the review right there. Looking forward to the seventh.