“An incredible and important album in jazz history” is pianist Rick Simpson’s assessment of The Printmakers (1985), Geri Allen’s debut album as leader. In this feature Rick writes about Geri Allen, the ‘Black Mystery School’ of pianists, the impact the album made on him when he first heard it, and his total admiration for her way of playing, which “cannot be taught, the sound-world is too elusive”:
Geri Allen. Publicity photo by Rob Davidson
My first entry into jazz piano wasn’t unusual – Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans on Kind of Blue. Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock quickly followed. Nothing unusual there. However, I was grateful to have a mentor, jazz pianist Race Newton, whose constant supply of cassette tapes, each half filled with what he deemed to be essential listening, introduced me early on to figures such as Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner, Don Pullen and the UK’s Django Bates. These special musicians pulled my ear towards what pianist Matthew Shipp calls the ‘Black Mystery School’. At some point in my development I made the decision that although all of jazz has a place in my heart a certain branch of the tree set my imagination on fire.
When I finally heard the music of Geri Allen I realised that I had, admittedly tardily, discovered one of the major figures of the Black Mystery School and someone whose aesthetic encompassed what it was I wanted to do with music. She embodied the spirit of the idiosyncratic, free-yet-earthy sound I had come to deeply identify with and aspire to attain myself. As Matthew Shipp puts it:
“Mystery School pianists have developed profound ways of generating sound out of the instrument grounded in a technique they invented and one that cannot be taught in school. It is a code that somehow gets passed down.
“The Mystery School seems to have a subconscious urge to resist academic codification of any sort. Despite however great artists and jazz musicians they are, and this is not meant as a pejorative, jazz students can go to jazz schools and learn to play like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock, but there is something completely elusive in the sound world of Randy Weston, Mal Waldron, and the legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali that defies the jazz academy.”
During his 2016 week at the Village Vanguard, Jason Moran spoke about going to see Andrew Hill play there night after night:
“[…] it was watching him put his hand into the paint so frequently, his hand, not the brush, his hand in the paint. It was so messy what he was playing. And I was like…I wanna do THAT. He makes that sound so good!”
Of course, Andrew Hill is not messy, but I understand what Moran meant. It’s an antidote to the increasing feeling in jazz that everything has to be completely on the grid…to line up perfectly. Andrew Hill lines up, just not in the way that you’re supposed to.
“I wanna do THAT” was also my reaction when I first heard Geri Allen’s debut album The Printmakers, recorded in Stuttgart in 1984, and released the following year.
Admittedly I was late to the party but the record hit me hard and was on constant rotation for weeks – something I’d been struggling to find with other music for a while.
The intention is clear from the start – drummer Andrew Cyrille begins proceedings with a loose but intensely groovy solo using his hands and cheeks before moving onto the kit. This isn’t a typical blowing session. This is a statement. When Allen and bassist Anthony Cox do come crashing in, the feeling is that of a wake up call – Allen immediately throwing down, full throttle but uniquely her own. She’s really hitting hard here, full of confidence and vitality. It’s clear from the start that this isn’t a jazz pianist following a codified, academy-esque approach. She is creating her own world that draws on Ellington, Monk, Andrew Hill, taking the jazz piano language and refracting it through a prism. It’s all there, the time, the sound, the ideas, but they are entirely hers.
By the third tune, Running As Fast As You Can…TGTH, it’s clear that this isn’t a set of standard tunes. Cyrille, a master of the avant garde, shows his deep connection to the tradition; here you can hear him channel pure Elvin Jones – around the 25-second mark he plays what sounds like a moment from Jones’ introduction to Pursuance from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, except it is abstracted out. Deep information, deep execution but, like Geri, abstracted out into a new sound-world. The trio freely improvise and play the sheets of sound that Coltrane’s group was famous for. It’s deeply rooted in blues and Ellington and wildly virtuosic.
Swing appears in the title track but it’s not swing as you’ve heard it before. Allen is hitting as hard as McCoy Tyner and Kenny Kirkland – getting a huge sound out of the piano, each note hitting the bottom of the keybed. Here, the trio deconstruct the history of swinging jazz piano and spit it back out all upside down. The trio move from swing to loping, wonky vamps, to hymn-like passages. It all feels improvised and natural, tight and loose, wild and controlled, free of cliché.
The personality present in the music of the opening track, A Celebration of All Life is huge. Like the title track, it does indeed feel like a celebration.
Andrew sounds to me like a nod to Andrew Hill’s tune No Doubt from his 1964 album Andrew!!!. It has a similar sound-world and mood, and the same arco-bass that Richard Davis used on that piece. There’s no doubt that Allen was a huge fan of Hill’s playing and music. This is one of two delicate moments on the album yet Andrew is still full of delicious tension and unresolved harmonies.
The highlight of the album could possibly be the unaccompanied When Kayuba Dances. This piece alone surely cements Allen in the jazz piano history books. It’s an incredibly virtuosic performance, deeply grooving, connecting up all the dots of the Black American tradition and displaying a compositional approach relatively unexplored in jazz at that time. I can’t think of anything else quite like it. Near the end of the piece I once thought Allen might have overdubbed some extra notes in, such was my disbelief and awe at the level of piano playing. When Kayuba Dances, rather like the title track The Printmakers, is a journey through contrasting sections. Some angular and free, some a blissful release. This is a pivotal moment in jazz history.
The final track D and V offers a peaceful closing to an incredible and important album in jazz history. A telepathic duet between Allen and Cox, Allen still playing full-throated and mysterious but giving the listener a real moment to breathe.
For a debut record, The Printmakers is startling. Assured, immediate, fresh, full of personality, Allen arrived on the recording scene a fully formed pianist and musical personality. If there is one record to acquaint yourself with her musical legacy then this debut is a fine place to start. I only wish one day a bootleg of these three musicians playing live emerges. I regret never having seen Allen play live; her death from cancer at the age of sixty came far too soon. However, her legacy lives on and her spirit has influenced many of my favourite pianists from the last twenty years – Craig Taborn, Kris Davis, Jason Moran, Nikki Iles, Matthew Shipp and Vijay Iyer, to name a few. The aesthetic is a rejection of music college jazz. This way of playing cannot be taught, the sound-world is too elusive. It can only be experienced and an influence. “She could go anywhere, and she wasn’t in a box,” the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who first played with Allen in the 1980s, said in an interview. “That’s the kind of player that Geri was.” That’s the kind of player I aspire to be myself.
Whilst Allen earned a great career and recognition (she was the first woman to win the Danish JazzPar award, in 1996), to many she still remains on the fringe. I hope this article can turn some new listeners onto her music and her legacy.
LINKS: Geri Allen websiteLiam Noble on Geri Allen from 2017