Photo by Randee St. NicholasShe's no Dixie Chick, but jazz vocalist-pianist Karrin Allyson doesn't mind speaking out when the spirit moves her, as it did last month during her appearance at Bourbon Street, a decidedly American-named nightclub in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Allyson was appearing.
"It was just the emotion of the moment," says Allyson, a singer known for emotion. "I was thanking the [Brazilian audience] for the gift of the samba, told them what a wonderful gift it's been to the world of song, and for the great songs and songwriters that Brazil has given us, like Jobim and "Quiet Nights," and how they have become American jazz standards and how music is such a great medium for bringing us together rather than separating us."
It was at that point that Allyson offered an apology. "I wanted the world to know that not everyone in the U.S., that a great number of us, are very upset about our current administration's behavior and actions, and are embarrassed about the lack of resistance to it."
The Brazilian audience's reaction? "They were clapping and smiling," Allyson replies, on the phone from New York on her first day back from Brazil. Later, she says, "I didn't want to create an incident. I just expressed what I felt."
In this improvised way, here spurred by politics, Allyson offers a glimpse into her artistic philosophy. "If it feels right, if you perform it live and get a good reaction, if you have a certain message to get across, if certain things are important to you as an artist, then that is what [your material] will carry. The hope is that the songs you do will speak to the listener."
It's no coincidence then that the second cut on Allyson's latest CD, In Blue, is Mose Allison's lament "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy" ("Everybody's cryin' peace on Earth just as soon as we win this war") or that she sings with a conviction unusual in this American Idol era of entertainment.
Indeed, Allyson didn't make it big on overnight celebrity or a Grammy nomination (though she does admit that her twin nominations for 2001's Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane marked a turning point in her career). She laughs when she's reminded of long-ago pop gigs at Ranch Bowl in ever-hip Omaha, Nebraska, as part of the all-femme band Tomboy. "That was a put-together commercial thing on weekends and I was the keyboard player. During the week, I was a classical piano student."
Allyson, a Midwestern product and recent graduate into the 40-something crowd, is old-school All American. In an era when record labels are looking for instant success with the next Natalie Cole, Diana Krall or Norah Jones, Allyson points to her dues-paying as a measure of pride.
"There's more of a pop-sensation mentality going on now in jazz, and I don't think it's a particularly good thing," she says. "It's no longer about development. Jazz is a whole different world [than pop]; it's about living your life and having something to say about the way you lived it. It's not about looking good on album covers. I want my albums to sell as much as anyone else's, but the music is the paramount thing. We all have different ways of reaching our goals. It's about your own journey."
Allyson's journey began in Omaha even as she studied classical piano and did pop gigs. "It was an evolution thing. When I studied piano, I used to get sheet music and sing along with these cool tunes, imitate my favorite artist of the day. Then the rock thing came along, and though it wasn't a goal of mine, it was good performing experience. So I was doing a variety of things at once, a sort of Jekyll and Hyde existence."
She left Omaha to perform around Minneapolis, and then an uncle asked her to come to Kansas City to anchor the entertainment at his jazz club. During the decade she spent there, she established musical connections, notably with guitarist Danny Embrey and pianist Paul Smith (both of whom will appear with her next week at Steamers), that continue to this day.
"Traveling [as a musician] is hard and you have to enjoy who you play with. Having a working band is a luxury, to try to develop five voices into one. Just backing up a singer is not my idea of good musicmaking. If the music isn't worth it, then the rest of the stuff isn't worth it either."
Some West Coast airplay of a self-produced recording brought her to the attention of the late Carl Jefferson at Concord Records; Allyson has recorded 11 discs for the jazz label. Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane is one of them, an attempt to recreate the feel of Coltrane's landmark 1961 recording Ballads.
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While the Grammy nominations the album earned raised her visibility, they haven't been as crucial to her career as the Grammy attention given to Cole and Krall, and now to Jones. "It's a wonderful thing to be recognized by the greater musical community, but it's not an end-all. It's a sort of universally accepted calling card when someone asks what you've done and all you can say is you've been studying 20 years. It's an honor, but I do think my climb is ongoing and that [the nominations] were just one turning point."
Still, the two years since Ballads have seen a rise in Allyson's stock. She's traveling more overseas and has recently hired the William Morris Agency to manage her career. After 20 years of promoting herself, the singer can't quite let go of the business end of her livelihood. "I'm still involved with booking and all, but now I'll have more time to write music, work on my piano playing and improve my singing."
Is there any chance that she'll return to classical piano? "No," she laughs. "I would have to take five years off just to get up to speed."
Karrin Allyson performs at Steamers Caf, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8800. Thurs.-Sat., June 12-14, 8 p.m. Call for cover. All ages.