10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

Ten Tracks by Geri Allen I Can’t Do Without…by Liam Noble

Geri Allen. Publicity photo by Rob Davidson
Geri Allen. Publicity photo by Rob Davidson

In the late eighties, there was a lot going on. Jazz was in rude health – everyone was arguing about what it should or shouldn’t be, and most of it sounded great. Mike Stern, Bob Berg and Brecker were still making music that was almost like the pop music of the time. Wynton Marsalis was starting to preach but played his arse off. Scofield, Jarrett and Motian all offered hybrid and personal approaches to playing everything from New Orleans-styled vamps to open grooves and songbook standards. The “Downtown” scene proposed something different again, that pop and rock and anything else similarly neglected might be added to the heady mix.

The music of the time was all rigor and lax, a healthy eco system of competing and crossing personalities that resisted any kind of strict genre tagging. Those were the days.

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It had been a while since a pianist had emerged that proposed a new way of improvising. Keith Jarrett, like Coltrane and Brecker for saxophonists, was a towering influence, virtuosic, unashamedly sentimental at times, groovy at others, and capable of feats of astonishing plate-spinning architecture. You couldn’t, if you tried, get near it. Having been a big influence on him in the 60s, Paul Bley’s later work provided some relief from that sense of failure one got from listening to Jarrett, indeed it seemed like failure was an almost essential component of Bley’s stoical style…he was like the Eeyore of improvised music. It was an acquired taste!

And then I discovered Geri Allen. She played with a seemingly carefree and casual attack, like a modernised Earl Hines. It all felt so relaxed. Like British improvisers Bobby Wellins and Don Weller, it seemed the “right notes” were something to bear in mind rather than adhere to, an approach that seemed to blend the total chromaticism and linear freedom of Ornette, Bley and others with the danceability of early pre-bop styles. In short, she zig zagged, like her right hand’s spidery lines, around all the places everyone else felt the need to go to.

Her compositions were another thing entirely, carefully chosen piano voicings grooved and clanged against angular bass lines, the friction between them producing a kind of modernist swagger that tapped into Stravinsky’s edge and Fela Kuti’s endless trance. Uniting the strictly acoustic rhythm sections of Wynton’s polemic with the electricity of M-Base and fusion territory, she bridged the gap and set up her own camp simultaneously.

Unlike Jarrett, I felt no need to stop listening to her to protect my sanity. It’s not superhuman…it’s just really good.

1. “When Kabuya Dances”: Geri Allen: “Twilight”

My first Geri experience, that surprise that happens when you don’t know who the person is, and you put it on and it blows you round the room. From the opening two notes that seem to rock to and fro listlessly, a whole world emerges…those two notes, so relaxed, become part of a web of rhythmic intricacy, leading to deceptively simple melodies and determinedly jagged improvisations before closing again with those same two notes. This kind of casual precision is, for me, what defines her music.

2. “Segment”: Geri Allen/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian: “Segment”

Along with Motian’s “On Broadway” series, Jarrett’s trio and Scofield’s acoustic records of the early nineties, this recording represented the highest art of changes playing for me. Charlie Parker’s music has inspired a wealth of studious, analytical approaches, but Allen chooses to let her fingers move by touch here, seeming to feel out the notes, accepting clusters and chaos whilst never losing her place. There’s a moment in this record where Motian leaves a big hole in the sound, sensing exactly where Geri is going, and they both then crash back in as if bursting through bar doors in a Western fight scene.

3. “Open On All Sides”: Geri Allen: “Open On All Sides-In The Middle”

No time for messing around here, this tune comes straight in at full throttle, sung lyrics fused to the line, horns commenting in typically tangential fashion. There’s so much humour in this music, and just as the trombone solo starts to burn, she cuts it off and is into something else, then does the same thing with the sax solo. There’s something almost angry about the abruptness of the mood changes, but music this joyful can only make you feel better and the sheer leanness and density of the ideas here is so refreshing.

4. “Lonely Woman”: Charlie Haden/Paul Motian/Geri Allen: “Etudes”

Yes, it’s that “Lonely Woman”, a piece that always seemed like the antithesis to the monolithic tuning of the piano. Haden and Motian supply a kind of dream bed of push and drone here, and Allen can leave things pretty sparse as a result. After the grave statement of the theme, the lightness of her gestures somehow seem to extract something new from the instrument, phrases sinking into indistinct clusters, back into the fog from which they came.

5. “Eric”: Geri Allen: “The Printmakers”

The almost offhand, rhapsodic piano introduction here harks back to the early masters, but the dense colours of the composition point elsewhere. Geri Allen virtually invented this mood, an impressionistic and unsentimental walk around a world full of strange and beautiful sounds…a kind of extension of the kind of ballads Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter used to play, but moving into an almost Takemitsu-like dream state complete with typically acerbic piano lines that ensure nobody quite sleeps.

6. “Night Shadows”: Geri Allen: “The Nurturer”

Allen’s music gets a little bit more slick here, and she responds by dirtying it up all the more. Listen to how she plays over Eli Fountain’s enigmatic composition, skirting the edges of the harmony whilst Bob Hurst and Jeff Watts do their thing…it’s a great combination. Geri Allen points so many ways at once in her music, and her solo blends orthodox lines with bumps and smears that make the piano sound like a big, jellied eel.

7. “And They Partied”: Geri Allen: “Maroons”

Allen’s early work with Steve Coleman seems to surface in this tune, a brilliantly asymmetrical bass line that brings a new heaviness of groove to her work. This whole album is a total gem. Two bass players and two drummers give the whole thing the kind of lurching momentum that Threadgill’s similarly voiced “Sextett” had. It’s all about the dirt, and this Dolphy-ish line that sits on top of it.

8.Number Four”: Geri Allen: “Maroons”

This duo between Allen and criminally underrated trumpeter Marcus Belgrave is one of my favourite tracks on this list. Lawrence Williams’ theme is at once sprawling and simple, and the two simply saunter through it together. Belgrave has a touch of Harry Beckett about his sound, and to hear Geri playing through these kind of chords is an inspiration, clearly showing how malleable her playing can be.

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9. “LWB’s House”: Geri Allen & Timeline Live

I love the way this groove sort of grinds into action, the typically colourful piano vamp picking up tempo gradually as the tap dancer Kenny Davis enters, followed by drummer Kassa Overall. This is vintage territory for Allen, but the inclusion of a tap dancer stretches the sonic palette and reinstates connections between tap and drums (…Joe Jones was originally a tap dancer, Fred Astaire played drums…). History’s role becomes more prominent in Allen’s later work, and perhaps her improvising settles into a more mainstream style. She earned it!

10. “The Eyes Have It”: Geri Allen: “Eyes In The Back Of Your Head”

This is really something. Ornette Coleman and Geri Allen, together as a duo. You can hear her somehow searching out his flow on an instrument built for Victorian living rooms and concert halls. There’s no chasing the ball here, each does their own thing, but it’s interesting to hear Ornette playing against Geri’s fearless bass line, and how she bends the two worlds closer together than you might imagine. Halfway through, there’s a silence and the two slowly embark on an improvised ballad, and you wonder why everyone isn’t doing this…

LINKS: Geri Allen and “The Printmakers” (1985) by Rick Simpson

Liam Noble’s blog

2 replies »

  1. Very nice survey Liam. Geri tends to be overlooked even by seasoned jazz pianists. She will always be up there in my personal pantheon because she eschewed easy routes into artistry by being first and foremost a prolific composer. That wasn’t to say she eschewed tradition. Far from it. She was also a well established jazz academic who taught generations of students that very tradition. Thanks for enlightening us about one of our latter day music queens who left us all too soon.

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