Karrin Allyson: Footprints

A stunning program of post-bop jazz standards from a mature singer out on the mainstream edge.

Karrin Allyson


Contributors: Bruce Barth, Jon Hendricks, Nancy King, Frank Wess
Label: Concord
US Release Date: 2006-04-25
UK Release Date: 2006-05-15

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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