Karrin Allyson is making me hear vocals again. Am I closed-minded? Guess so. Aside from the immortals — Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan — jazz singers don’t usually grab my attention. Oh yeah, there’s also Jimmy Rushing, Nat “King” Cole, Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Chris Connor, Sheila Jordan: Guess I do like an original voice now and then.
Allyson’s sound isn’t one for the ages, like all of the above, but what she’s done with Ballads is take on a scary project and make it work. A longtime fan of tenor sax iconoclast John Coltrane, she has always admired the unusual (for him) 1961-62 Impulse session wherein he played eight of the most tender, personally rendered ballads of his career (though it was a set he reputedly resisted making).
Anyway, Allyson finally decided to record those songs, in their original album order, taking on the challenge of interpreting the words and giving body to the tunes with an approach that might somehow do justice to Trane’s sound. It’s an idea fraught with peril, the kind that immediately makes you doubt its wisdom.
Until Allyson intones the first notes of “Say It (Over and Over Again),” that is. Let’s just say she weighs in with such authentic feeling and resonant tenderness that all doubts go out the window. Within seconds, the piano-bass-drums backup establishes a perfect space for her languid sensuality; James Carter’s obbligato tenor climbs aboard and she draws out the words “… never stop saying … you’re mine.” Soon Carter’s solo reinforces the ain’t-no-foolin’ intentions of the whole affair.
By the time Allyson is halfway through the next tune, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” she’s the girl you’ve always wanted to fall for: sophisticated, fresh, sexy and sincere, with a little touch of that Judy Garland heart-on-sleeve sound in her throat. Except for her in-the-pocket scatting on “All or Nothing At All,” she’s rarely a swinger à la Ella Fitzgerald, but she’s got such an intense grip on these standards that each becomes an essential narrative you want to hear “over and over again.”
Joining Allyson in creating these songs anew are some terrific musicians: James Williams (piano), John Patitucci (bass), Lewis Nash (drums), Bob Berg (tenor sax), Carter (tenor sax) and Steve Wilson (soprano sax).
The set gets three extra tracks as Allyson adds Coltrane’s signature “Naima,” plus “Why Was I Born?” and “Everytime We Say Goodbye” from other Coltrane sessions — further evidence of the rightness of the proceedings. On “Naima,” which is wordless, she vocalizes in unison with Carter’s tenor, sounding almost Brazilian, yet universal at the same time — and that’s what this record really is about, a quite specific yet universal love.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at email@example.com.