In conversation with karrin allyson

by Marissa Dodge

Editorís Note: As part of's focus on jazz vocalists this month, we are delighted to present this interview with Karrin Allyson, conducted by Marissa Dodge. Dodge, a talented lyricist in her own right (check out her work with Phil Kelly and Lena Horne) is a connoisseur of the jazz vocal arts. She proved to be the perfect interlocutor for Allyson, who has made her mark through a series of outstanding - and often surprising - recordings for the Concord label. Allyson's newest offering, Imagina: Songs of Brazil, is scheduled for release next month, and will no doubt offer another interesting angle in a multi-faceted career that has encompassed everything from Cat (Stevens) to Caetano (Veloso). And if Allyson hasn't yet gone from Coltrane to Cobain, it's just a matter of time. Her music is marked not just by its eclectic range, but even more by its emotional authenticity. Few singers are more skilled at bringing a lyric to life than this talented lady. For more on Allyson, see the article ĒThe State of Jazz Vocals Today,Ē published earlier this week on T.G.

     Karrin Allyson, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Your recordings have become more like collections of works of art rather than CDs. What musicians and composers will you collect next?

Thank you. Our new album is coming out in March of 2008 and itís Brazilian material; some of itís Jobim, but not all of it. Rosa Passos - great singer from Brazil, wrote a beautiful song called, ďOutono,Ē which means ďAutumn,Ē and Paul Williams wrote the English lyric for itÖ

Paul Williams wrote lyrics for Ivan Linsí music as well.

Yes, the same kind of collaboration, but the song is quite different. There are also two Edo Lobo and Vinicius de Moraes songs that my friend, Chris Caswell - the gentlemen who wrote many of the lyrics to the Footprints songs - wrote new English lyrics to, and there are two Jobim songs, ďA FelicidadeĒ and ďVivo Sonhando,Ē that Susannah McCorkle wrote English lyrics to. We recorded it at Sear Sound, NYC, where we did Footprints, Wild For You, and In Blue.

Sonically as well as musically, Footprints is a great recording; all astral tracks and your sound is so warm and in the room. Itís nice to hear the presence and quality of your voice rather than effects and overproduction.

Thank you. Iíve been using the same engineer, Josiah Gluck, since Ballads. My producer, Nick Phillips - who played trumpet on Footprints - has been with me since my third CD. Weíve built a strong studio relationship. Also, my partner, Bill McGlaughlin is extremely helpful in the studio.

Bill is a fount of musical knowledge and multi-talented like you. Itís great to have a trusted support system, then you can just fly.

Yes, and thereís a ton of work for me to do. Iím extremely involved with this recent project. I arranged some of the songs and co-arranged the rest. I always choose the material and the players, schedule what and when we record, and we just finished mixing it and Iím very involved in that too.

What makes you fall in love with songs?

Thatís kind of a mysterious thing, I think, for everyone, but obviously if itís a great melody or if the lyrics are happening - and maybe itís not both - youíre lucky if itís both. If it has a meaning, one that everyone can get, or if it has a meaning to you and you hope to portray it for others, also the storytelling qualities, and the messages.

Do you ever pick one because it just feels good to sing? Say, a melody thatís a great jumping off point that you can improvise on layer after layer?

Yes, thatís a good point - true. And maybe thatís a real íliveí consideration, like youíre thinking about what tune you want to start with, which is very important to get you going and connecting with the audience and your players. Thatís important throughout the performance, but especially that first song. So yes, you definitely think, ďItís not like I have to send a message and tell a story on this first song, I just want to get a flow going.Ē

Iíve seen you live a few times, and youíre a superb performer. What do you think about doing a live CD?

Thank you. Weíve thought about it, itís in the future, it just hasnít happened yet. Live recordings have their own sets of challenges.

A live studio CD with an audience would be coolÖ

Öthat would be very cool, I like that idea.

What tracks from Footprints are closest to your soul?

I like the title track a lot; I love that lyric and the treatment of that song. I love to groove around with ďThe Turnaround,Ē thatís fun, and I play both of those songs live on piano, so itís also fun to connect that way. I think "Con Alma" is beautiful, the lyric and the treatment. Separating myself from it, I like doing those tracks Ďlive.í ďA Tree And MeĒ is beautiful - Oscar Brown Jr.ís song - I play piano on that one Ďliveí too.

Your recording of ďA Tree And MeĒ sounds exactly the way it should be - itís a framed portrait. Like ďCon Alma,Ē it also has classical shadings, a natural for you on piano.

We lovingly borrowed Oscar Brown Jr.ís version of that tune, itís really his. His is also a vignette, he doesnít take it out or improvise on it, itís a poem. Bruce Barth plays on the recording, and I play it Ďliveí unless Bruce is on the gig, but Iíve lost him to Tony Bennett. With my guitar quartet - which I love - I play more piano, I also stand up and sing because I like that freedom.

     Karrin Allyson, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

When you accompany yourself on piano, do you sing differently? Do you feel more or less comfortable with a song?

Iíve been told I sing differently, from sound people, when Iím sitting vs. when Iím standing. I havenít thought about it that much as far as the projection - hopefully, to a certain extent thatís the sound engineerís job. I donít think I approach it that differently, although Iím multitaskingÖ

Öand your attention is divided, yet, youíre the core of the music. Do you feel that grounding tonal center when youíre at the piano?

Yes, I do. When I sit down itís a very comfortable feeling and itís more challenging too, it just depends on the song, how complicated it is, and if IĎm just learning the song. For example, many of the songs Iíll end up playing piano on for performances though I wasnít necessarily playing on the recording, so a lot of them are still new to me.

Would you like to record an entire CD with you playing piano and singing, whether solo, trio, or quartet, but essentially you as the nucleus?

Thatís an interesting idea. You know, I already feel like the nucleus - but I know what youíre saying - and that happens more Ďliveí than in recording, so maybe someday, sure.

Most of my favorite vocalists play piano; Sarah, Carmen, Shirley HornÖdo you feel that your piano background has given you a more complete, well-versed method of singing, especially in your impeccable improvisational skills?

Thank you. When I learn songs I sit down at the piano with them. Usually I do that, even if itís something I never really plan on playing. Like if itís a real up bebopper, thatís not my thing at the piano. Iíll still learn the melody on the piano and play around with it. But yes, I do feel that, especially when singers come up and ask, ďWhat would you suggest I do if thereís just three things?Ē Number one is, do you play any piano? If you can, get some keyboard knowledge. It doesnít mean you have to perform for people on the keyboard, but it certainly helps you as a musician.

It beats the sense of chords and harmony into you. More singers should play piano.

Yes. Iíd like to eventually to take a more harmonic approach to my improvisation. I think itís probably more melodic based up until nowÖ

ÖI hear it all within your solos, and I also hear melodies that are ready-made compositions. How about writing music?

Thatís a good point, my lyricist/composer friend, Chris Caswell, will say, ďJust improvise into a tape recorder and letís make a melody out of it.Ē So we do that already. Chris and I have songs that weíve written together, and I have songs that Iíve written the music to. One blues tune is on a CD that weĎve done, ďSweet Home Cookiní." Thatís my tune, and there are a couple that Iíve written partial lyrics to and I wrote the lyric to ďJorduĒ on Footprints. But there are pieces that I do write music to, so thatís in the future.

Itís a natural progression because your improvs sound composed - still in the moment and not contrived, but composed. Thatís a rare skill with vocalists, but the best ones do it. Iíve always loved the way Ella laid her solos out.

Thatís true, she was the master.

She was, but youíre a master at it as well. I always get a kick out of listening to you scat.

Thatís very kind, thank you, Marissa.

Speaking of ďLife Is A Groove,Ē I dig that.

Thatís a fun one.

And of course thereís not enough time to talk about how much we love Nancy King.

Oh gosh, yes!

Sheís great. How did you come up with the lyric for ďLife Is A Groove?Ē

I was driving to a gig from Kansas City to Minneapolis and listening to my favorite Clifford Brown, Max Roach offering of that song and ďJoy SpringĒ and all that. So I thought, ďI love this little tune,Ē and I just started writing that lyric. Sometimes it happens that way but usually it doesnít! (laughs).

Yes, itís sporadic at best. Did you feel more comfortable singing that lyric because you created it?

No, less. I feel itís a very personal thing to sing your own lyrics. As a singer youíre already pretty naked out there, and if youíre singing your own lyrics - and music is one thing because itís a little more ethereal, meaning the melody or the chords - but itís different when youíre singing lyrics. Though sometimes as a singer/songwriter youíre kind of taking the role as an actress, and itís not necessarily you youíre talking about.

It becomes conceptual, yet we always wonder if the writer lived the lyric. Though one of your gifts is interpretation - both lyrically and melodically. Your fluency in musical styles is your differentiator. Itís always Karrin, but you truly become the style, you donít just imitate it.

Thatís nice of you to say that, because thatís important to me.

I can tell it is because you excel at it. Iíve often wondered how much of it is innate, and how much of it is skill and work, but my theory is that the key to capturing styles from Brazilian to bop - everything you do so well - is feel. What is it for you and how do you apply it?

Good question. I do think a lot of itís feel. Even when we canít understand a languageÖsay Iím singing in Portuguese, and Iím not fluent in Portuguese, like opera singers who know a language can both speak and sing in it. I do speak French, and Iím learning Portuguese, and I certainly canít converse in it, but you sing like you can. You donít have to understand the language to get the feel or the style down. People love Edith Piaf in this country, they donít necessarily know what sheís singing, but she has so much heart, soul, and feel in it that you get it.

How to prepare for it? I get tutoring in the languages, I donít take it lightly or simply sing it syllabically. I want to know as much of the meaning as I can and get the accent down as close as I can. Itís hard, but I love languages, so itís a labor of love. Also, getting the grooves down - I think what really captures us at first with Brazilian music are those wonderful samba, bossa, and folk grooves. Brazilian music has become such a big part of the American songbook too - so many great Brazilian composers.

Yes, itís Ďpeopleísí music. On the Concord Voices of Jazz DVD, you nail the blues with ďMoaniníĒ then slip right into a Brazilian groove with ďMy Little Boat.Ē When youíre swiftly switching styles, do you hear a piece of it in your head, feel the groove like a drummer would, get it into your body, and then walk into it, or?

Yes, because live you have to switch from style to style on a dime, and itís not always successful, especially with bebop - time is everything, really. But say youíve finished ďMoaniníĒ and youíre going to do a bebop song, the tempo is important because if youíre spitting out words, like on ďJoy Spring,Ē you want to be able to make your words understandable. Bebop has that continuum.

Itís rapid-fire.

It is, and you canít look back, you have to keep moving forward.

Thatís the fun and the fear of it.

Yes, bop is an amazing intellectual challenge.

It was a treat to hear you, Jon Hendricks and Nancy King on ďEverybodyís Boppiní.Ē What a great trio! I smiled at your laugh on Jonís solo, as if to say, ďHowíd you come up with those riffs, Jon!Ē

Thatís so much fun to be in the same room as them, the energy is amazing! The laugh? Well, you know you try to as much real stuff in there as you possibly can.

Nancy is wonderful; Iím drawn in by everything she does.

Me too. When I first saw her live, I was on the edge of my seat crying and laughing.

Are there other art forms that inspire you musically; literature, visual arts, nature?

Iím nature girl. I love being outside and Iím an environmentalist. I love movies. I love to read biographies, novels, and nature magazines - almost anything.

Do you constantly hear music and rhythms in your surroundings?

I have pretty acute hearing and for what I do for a living thatís good, but when youíre living in the city itís not so good. Iíve always been bothered by noise. I usually work it out in rhythms - not necessarily intentionally, itís just percussive stuff.

How do you turn it down and find the peace and silence we need to refill the cup?

Getting outside, or trying to get enough sleep. I donít listen to music constantly, I donít always have my iPod in my ears when Iím out and about.

Do you dream about singing and playing?

Usually when I dream about singing or playing itís that I canít find the gig, (both laughing). Itís those incompetence dreams. I canít find the stage or my clothes. . .

Field day for Freud.

Those are the dreams I have. I donít have dreams of grandeur or anything like that. (laughs)

You live your dreams of grandeur.

Thatís very niceÖwe certainly have reality, yes.

Ösometimes too much. On that note, since reality can be in print, do you ever wish that reviewers who get caught up with your physical appearance would focus instead on your depth, brilliance, and musical accomplishments?

I donít see that very much. I wish that they would, yes. They probably wouldnít do that to a guy, but I donít think they focus on my appearance as much as they do on a lot of other people. We just got a review recently from our Birdland performance from Stephen Holden (New York Times), and he wrote, ďWith Ms. Allyson there is never any nonsense. She doesnít preen, flirt or act coy.Ē I liked that because I donít try and draw attention to myself particularly, I try to draw attention to the song, the music, and my players.

Has it been a challenge to balance remaining true to yourself and the music vs. the business?

Not really, the challenge of it is to keep track of it all and to find a management team that has the same goals and vision as you. I want someone to show me the way too. I donít always want to be the one to say, ďDo this and do that.Ē

You donít want to be preoccupied with it; youíre there for the music.

But, Iím constantly preoccupied with it, unfortunately, unless Iím singing or playing. I donít travel with a road manager, I do the bulk of this day to day stuff on my own.

Thatís a lot to carry and it takes you away from the music. Maybe itís a bit off balance, you could be singing right now.

Not singing, ideally Iíd be practicing piano, Iíd be singing a little or maybe trying to write or finish one of the ten songs Iíve started. But, thatís an excuse you can always use, ďWell, if I didnĎt have to do this, Iíd be sitting at that piano.Ē Iíve never been a very good ďpracticer.Ē I usually have to have a project to motivate me. I do enjoy sitting down and playing. Last summer, there was a rare lull in my schedule and I put together my sweet little classical book; stuff I like to play thatís challenging but not too challenging, and I started to play classical again, which was my first love.

Iíd love to hear you play classical. If you hadnít chosen music, what career might interest you?

Iíve thought about that latelyÖ (both laughing) there are moments when I think, ďGee, what other options do I have?Ē (more laughter)

Man, do I know the feeling.

Iím sure you do. Everybody who is rather open minded goes that route sometimes. I feel that Iím a versatile person. As Iíve mentioned, I love being outside, I donít know how Iíd do that all the time, but I used to think that Iíd be involved in a social cause - which I am peripherally, but something like joining the Peace Corps. I like working with older folks, I think theyíre an undervalued part of our society and we have much to learn from them and cherish about them. So those two things, and Iíd like to pursue languages more heavily; French was my minor in college and classical piano was my major, but languages and culture interest me.

Weíve covered alternative lives, how about the afterlife? Itís your first gig in Heaven, whoís on stage with you?

Heaven huh? You have high hopes for me! (laughs) I think musically Iíd rather be in Hell - Iíll play with the folks in Hell . . no, just kidding. (laughter). Wow, letís see, thatís a hard question because I have so many! Do they have to be dead? (laughs) Because Iíd love to see Joni Mitchell live. If she were open to hanging with someone, itíd be fascinating to sing with her.

More among the living that youíd like to collaborate with? The first person who comes to mind is Kurt Elling. You, Nancy King, and Kurt are the hippest in the hemisphere, along with Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy and Sheila Jordan. Youíre all innovators, while many vocalists tend to stagnate in rehash mode.

I did get a dream come true to work with and know Nancy, and I pursued that, so thatís a good point, and I love Kurtís stuff, weíve sat in together before, so I think that would be a really fun project. I admire Maria Schneiderís work very much, and Johnny Mandel as well. When I hire people for recordings theyíre people Iíve always wanted to work with; Bruce Barth, I pursued him as a pianist, I think heís a fantastic musician - great human being. All the people Iíve been working with forever; my drummer Todd Strait - everything I do heís right in the pocket with, and talk about being versatile, I couldnít do it unless my musicians were versatile too. My guitarist, Rod Fleeman, also pianist Gil Goldstein, both beautiful players. Iíve been working with vibist, Steve Nelson a lot, also Steve Wilson, a wonderful horn player. I love working with Laura Caviani because sheís a great piano player and collaborator, besides being a lovely person and one of my great friends. Sheís written many big band charts for me, sheís so open and hard working. People who are good at what they do love what they do - if that makes sense. I mean in this business you have to work hard, especially if youíre a ďside personĒ - even though I really donít like that term, because itís more of a collaborative thing - but my players have to get behind the music Iím doing. I love working with my long time guitarist Danny Embrey. Bob Bowman has been a huge influence on me. I loved working with Paul Smith (keys) because he was so joyful and swinginí. So itís mostly closer to home, rather than thinking, ďOhÖ someday Iíd like to work with, letís say, Pat Metheny,Ē - although, thatíd be fun!

Your piano is calling you. Last question: a wise old man once told me that one of the secrets of life is having things to look forward to. What do you look forward to?

AhÖtime off - thatís always nice, although I do look forward to wonderful performing opportunities. I look forward to new beginnings but also take great comfort in old friends and my family. I look forward to a new democratic, fair administration.

Amen. Just a new set of problemsÖ

I know it, anythingís better than this.

I look forward to what youíre going to come up with next. Youíre one of my handful of inspiring current artists. You give me hope for this art.

Thatís very nice of you, I appreciate that, and Iíve always loved what you do, Marissa, I loveÖ (singing) ĎBig Moe was a catfish and he only had one wishÖĎ I think thatís fantastic, I could never come up with something like that.

Thanks (laughing). But you sang it. I can write all day, but unless I have a Karrin to interpret it appropriately, songwriting can seem fruitless. Thank you for taking time away from making music to talk to me, Karrin. There are so many layers of you that I hoped to discover for myself and your listeners. Youíre not only a vocalist, but an entire artist.

Well, thatís very kind of you, thank you. I feel like it, but you know you always feel like thereís so much more work to do; that this part of you needs to be developed and this and that. But every once in a while I guess we can say, ďYou know what, you did good today.Ē

Karrinís ďgoodď is great - every day. A similar hopeful humbleness exists in each great artist IĎve been fortunate to meet. Within them lives an unspoken pact to honor the art form they love and to create and contribute work thatís worthy of our jazz heritage. Once this more quixotic than gratifying quest takes hold, its like bop, thereĎs no turning back. To quote Karrinís lyric for ďJordu,Ē ďI used to dream of playing jazz all night. So if you ask me nice, well I just might pick up my microphone and sing for you, only for you. And so my friend now you can plainly see this is the kind of thing that is for me, as long as we can play in harmony, life is a groove.Ē Itíll take the whole world a while to hear the harmony, but as long as Karrin sings and plays for us, life is a groove.


February 15, 2008 · 4 comments

  • 1 Suzanne Cerny // Feb 16, 2008 at 03:41 AM
    I heard Karrin Allyson in Santa Barbara at the Jazz Hall Club, run by Ridah Omri. I was very taken by the quality of voice in this intimate club setting with excellent musicians who came up all the way from L.A. for this gig, and so I created the charcoal from Karrin's photo that you see in this article. Sometimes I am sure that my focus on the artist has a lot to do with their focus on their music, their involvement. I catch into that. It makes me feel centered and in the art space.
  • 2 Benita Hill // Feb 17, 2008 at 04:11 PM
    Marissa, what a fabulous interview with one of my favorite vocalists, Karrin Allyson.Hearing Karrin talk about the new songs she's been writing has left me chompin' at the bit; anyone who can sing with that much soul certainly must have a deep well and I look forward to hearing what rises up! am a long time fan of both of you gals, and thank you so much for getting together.Can't wait to hear Karrin's new CD.
  • 3 Phil Kelly // Mar 04, 2008 at 08:54 PM
    Yo M: Excellent interview! You have yet another whole career ahead of you if the songwriting asiriations ( or perspirations ) end up in the dumper. It's a lot more interesting to read an interview written by a songsmith /musician interviewing another singer. The questions are more penetrating at a musical level and evoke responses from the artist that would be absent from many less well informed non-musician writers. I can't wait to see who you interview next time. cheers: Phil Kelly NW Prevailing Winds SW Santa Ana Winds Origin Records ps: It was great that both you and Karrin gave Nancy King some way overdue props!!
  • 4 Marla // Mar 22, 2008 at 04:09 PM
    I really enjoyed this for the same reasons as Phil Kelly stated - someone "in the know" interviewing a musician. Reminds me of one of my favorite books - the late drummer Art Taylor's book, "Notes and Tones." To have a musician interviewing his peers...right on the money. Great and insightful interview. Thanks. Marla