By Raoul Hernandez
OCTOBER 19, 1998: The pulse of drums prompts a ripple of chimes punctuated by the crystal tone of a small bell. Following several fast rolls across the timbales, a pause hangs in the air just long enough to foreshadow the brooding piano, marching arm and arm with its accomplice the bass. Trumpet and trombone join the procession as the drums measure off against the piano's insistent call. The spell has been struck, and with the wave of an imaginary wand, it's off to jazzland. The Gathering has begun.
Once the title cut fades, "Dark Prince" emerges fast out of the gate, a galloping rhythm section chasing the piano into the arms of ex-Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. "Light Matter," amid a flurry of changing tempos and a rainbow palette of different colors and hues, dazzles, while the garden of earthly delights in "Gabriel's Royal Blue Reals," and finally the closing jazz séance of "Angels" cast their own beguiling charms. No coincidence, certainly, that The Gathering was recorded at Sorcerer Sound Studio in New York.
"Well, it's kind of a mixture," says pianist Geri Allen about her compositions and style of play, a fairly dazzling modern mixture of free-flowing funk, blues, hard-bop, and jazz classicism that comes to fruition on her new Verve release, The Gathering. "Jazz is the launch pad. [My style] has the language, the history, and the rhythm [of jazz], definitely. But I allow all my influences to affect that, and that's where I think you start to hear people's personalities. You hear it in their compositions."
If it's true that musicians' personalities are revealed through their compositions, then Geri Allen, according to The Gathering, might be summed up in one word: luminous. Like the rest of Allen's body of work, beginning with the pianist's 1984 debut and continuing through her critically acclaimed work with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian, as well as her collaboration with Fort Worth native Ornette Coleman, The Gathering conjures a potent image of its creator as righteous earth mother, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually balanced by jazz.
"Well, I think it's a very honest representation of what I was hearing at the moment," says Allen. "In terms of compositions and the playing on the record, it's perhaps a more crystallized image of what I've been trying to say. The performances have come off with more clarity than I've been able to do previously. Hopefully, in the future, it will get much more clearer."
Clear enough already is the 41-year-old Allen's trajectory into the uppermost ranks of contemporary jazz. Born in Pontiac, Michigan but raised in Detroit, Allen remembers jazz always being played in the house, her father an ardent fan of the form and especially Duke Ellington and the Modern Jazz Quartet. When Allen expressed an interest in the piano after seeing Leonard Bernstein in a televised concert, her father purchased one, playing the occasional boogie-woogie set for fun and letting his 7-year-old daughter fall in love with the gleaming white ivories.
"It was something about the instrument that really attracted me," recalls Allen. "I can't really pinpoint what it was, but I kind of visualized the piano in a concert setting -- there being an orchestra. ... The image of the artist really attracted me. Everyone was so classy, this sophisticated edge to everyone's appearance. The music was like that. Just the whole package together really intoxicated me. It kind of took over, and I knew I really had to pursue the music."
By the time she reached Cass Technical High School, a Detroit arts institution that required auditions for admission, Allen knew jazz to be her calling. At the Jazz Development Workshop, she came under the tutelage of Marcus Belgrave, a trumpet player whose horn graces much of Ray Charles' peak work and a teacher known for his mentor status among area musicians. It was with Belgrave that Allen began her journey down a path paved by the legacy of Detroit piano greats such as Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Sir Roland Hanna, as well as genre greats like Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, and Pepper Adams. In fact, Detroit, between Motown and Motor City legends like the MC5 and Iggy Pop, produced more than just a nation's worth of automobiles.
"If you were going to be a good musician, you had to be able to play anything," explains Allen about Detroit's musical climate. "A lot of really great jazz players were the mainstay of the Motown music stable. It was never like you had to play only one type of music. It was always just music and you could go back and forth, and why not do everything. If you're a musician, you're supposed to be versatile enough to do it anyway. That was always the standard."
After receiving her undergraduate degree from Washington D.C.'s prestigious African-American institution for higher learning, Howard University -- where she met fellow jazz musician and future husband Wallace Roney -- Allen attended the University of Pittsburgh where she earned a master's degree in ethnomusicology. In the early Eighties, finished with school, Allen moved to New York, where her first job of note, backing Detroit hometown hero Mary Wilson of the Supremes, gave her a financial foothold.
By the middle of the decade, Allen had recorded her first album, The Printmakers, with sidemen Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille, and several years later was laying down a series of trio dates (In the Year of the Dragon, Etudes, and most recently, last year's The Montreal Tapes) with A-list greats Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, that musically, put the up-and-coming pianist on the scene map.
"Each of the steps in my career have opened up new doors," says Allen, "and that association opened many doors, one of them being Ornette. That was a door that opened. Working with Charlie and Paul, I also got to work in another great trio: Jack Dejohnette and Dave Holland with Betty [Carter], God rest her soul. I went on to work with Ron Carter and Tony Williams after that. So, each of those were doors, opening new, great opportunities."
Asked whether working with Ornette Coleman, one of the pillars of modern jazz --and a composer, arranger, musician who had not utilized a piano player in some 40 years -- was awe-inspiring, the answer naturally comes back affirmative.
"Yeah, it was a great experience. I've been a great fan of his music for a really long time. Then I had a couple exchanges with Ornette through Charlie Haden. I worked with Charlie and Paul for about two years, and I ran into Ornette during those two years on a few occasions. I never expected to have the chance to play with him, so when that opportunity came up, I was really very excited about that. I guess we worked together over the period of a couple of years before the Sound Museum albums [Three Women and Hidden Man] came to fruition. I learned a lot from working with him."
Just as influential, says Allen, was working with Betty Carter, another one of Detroit's contributions to the pantheon of jazz. With a rhythm section of the very highest order, the aforementioned team of bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Allen helped make Feed the Fire, recorded live in London, one of Carter's catalog highlights.
"She was so wonderful," says Allen sadly about Carter, who died earlier this month. "She spanned decades and decades, from 1955 up until just a few days ago. And she stuck to a sound she heard and believed in all those years. We had a lot of different discussions about music, and I knew her opinions and how she felt about a lot of the different directions jazz had taken throughout her life. The thing I respect about her is that she did what she believed in, she stuck with it, and she made things happen."
An outspoken, uncompromising vocalist known for her fierce commitment to be-bop and an even fiercer temper, Carter put out her own albums rather than capitulate to the wishes of jazz labels, and it was this type of defiant independence that made the singer not only a pioneer among jazz musicians but a beacon of strength among female jazz musicians. Allen, a former member of Vernon Reid's Black Rock Coalition and saxophonist Steve Coleman's M-Base collective, both organizations promoting professional and ideological unity within the African-American music community, says Carter made it easier for her to do what she does, although she readily admits she has never encountered barriers based on her sex.
"I've had this discussion," says Allen. "And it's not always a popular point of view, but I've felt that the music has been pretty fair in terms of my career. If I was prepared, then I didn't have problems with people. The only problems I've ever had is if there were musical things that weren't happening. I've always felt the music was fair in that way. That if a person was really prepared, the door is opened to them. I still stick with that. The real musicians were always open to anybody that could play."
And yet, Allen, as an instrumentalist rather than a vocalist, may be in a smaller minority still, few female jazz players coming to mind as readily as pianist Mary Lou Williams, who Allen portrayed in Robert Altman's gangster/jazz film, Kansas City.
"Early on, I got to see this woman named Terri Pollock, who is this really great pianist from Detroit, and I saw her perform with Terry Gibbs. And she was playing at such a high level that she was just burning the stage up. She would get up from the piano, and go over and play the vibes, and burn Terry Gibbs off of the vibes. You could tell the musicians respected her, and there was no question as to who she was and what she had to offer. When I saw that image, I never thought about it again. I think that's what really put things in perspective for me. Plus, the musicians in Detroit never gave me that impression, that I wasn't supposed to be there."
One purveyor of modern jazz who never gave Allen the impression she wasn't supposed to be there is Wallace Roney. A respected trumpeter in the tradition of Miles Davis, Roney shares Allen's life and lifestyle; the couple have been married five years, but known each other 20, and have three children, 7-year-old Laila, 2-year-old Wallace (both featured on The Gathering), and newborn baby, Barbara, who Allen comforts during our interview. Juggling three children and two full-blown careers can't be easy.
"Oh, it's great," purrs Allen. "I don't look at it that way at all. I think it's marvelous to have a partner who really understands the life and supports that process. The life is definitely a challenging life, so not everybody is going to want to deal with what's involved with it -- especially with children now. To have a partner who's a very open-minded and creative person is great. Jazz is so ...
"It's like a really complete science. It calls on everything you have to communicate. You have to deal with every aspect of having tried to be the best player that you can be; calling on the motor skills to hook up with your brain and the idiosyncrasies of harmony and melody. And then trying to be connected to the right things at the right moment. It's a lot to juggle. When Wallace and I play together, there's a trust that happens, and I'm learning things from him all the time. It's a great experience. I wouldn't have it any other way."
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