Deep Waters Flow Still
Invited to a party among humans last month, I blundered into a quietly alert gentleman who spoke with urgent patience. This was a lifelong jazz freak and guitarist named Herb Jordan, and when he said he’d co-produced a number of albums by Geri Allen, I all but kissed his ring. We groused about the absurdity of a world where a piano talent like Allen remains unfamous after a quarter-century in the trenches; a look of special pain clouded his eyes as he recounted the glories of the Detroiter’s 1998 album The Gathering, which glugged under in the wake of Verve Records’ corporate rebollixing and was followed by six years without Allen-led product. I left Mr. Jordan gently beating his skull against the wall.
The Gathering really is primo work — a casbah of textural variety lavished by the licentious guitar of Vernon Reid, the urgent drums of Lenny White, and the glowing horns of Wallace Roney and Robin Eubanks; Allen’s fingers romp like a traveler on an expense account. Her 2004 and 2006 Telarc albums, The Life of a Song and Timeless Portraits and Dreams, are deep, true statements too, as they had to be with the venerable bass-drums teams Dave Holland–Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter–Jimmy Cobb respectively onboard. (I could never connect with the kind of opera-jazz vocalists that Timeless showcases on a few tracks, but that’s my quirk.)
Cataloging the musicians who’ve flocked to Geri Allen has made me realize something: I have goddamn good taste. Either that, or Joseph Jarman, Oliver Lake, Arthur Blythe, James Newton, Andrew Cyrille, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman, Betty Carter, Tony Williams and Charles Lloyd made dumb-ass choices. When I first saw Allen at CalArts some 15 years ago, she was a mind on fire, flinging herself into abstractions like the demon spawn of Cecil Taylor. So I was a little disappointed when she had kids with Wallace Roney and diverted her waters toward the open, nurturing side of her art she’d explored with Haden and Paul Motian. But she knew that families, not tyrants, make the best music.
Now that I’ve seen Allen perform with Coleman and Lloyd a few times, I think I know what kind of bandmate he and the others have found. She’ll drift in, laying a musical tablecloth, then make the substructure undulate with subtle drags and prods on the rhythm, suggesting a melodic or harmonic option that makes the others think it was their idea. The guy handling the spotlight might miss her solos, which rise out of the surroundings and dissipate like ocean swells; she’s truly improvising, and you can hear her think and react. All evening, you keep looking back at her: This group sounds good . . . oh, that’s why.
When Allen is the leader, too, you hear an ensemble. But it’s her ensemble. The musicians know that.?
Geri Allen, Kenny Davis (bass) and Mark Johnson (drums) play the Jazz Bakery, Wed.-Sun., Oct. 18-22.