Geri ALLEN – Timeless Portraits and Dreams 2006

Geri ALLEN – Timeless Portraits and Dreams 2006

Jazz

There’s a certain purity, perhaps innocence, about jazz that’s played without the bells and whistles of modern technology and untainted by commercial trappings. When that purity is combined with superb songwriting, you have the makings of a recording that will never sound old. So it is with Timeless Portraits and Dreams.
A native of Detroit, Geri Allen began taking piano lessons at age eleven. She graduated from Howard University with a degree in jazz studies, and she later earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. Her professional career has included professorships in music at Howard and the University of Michigan; she has earned several awards. As a recording artist, she has collaborated with Mino Cinelu, Mary Wilson and the Supremes, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Betty Carter, among others.

On Timeless Portraits and Dreams, Allen delivers nearly an hour’s worth of musical elegance. The stage is set on the opening tracks, “Oh Freedom and “Melchezedik, two originals that feature Allen on solo piano and then joined by her rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb. On the latter piece, Carter stretches out. Allen is backed by the Atlanta Jazz Chorus on “Well Done, which features guest vocalist Carmen Lundy. Donald Walden introduces “I Have a Dream with a soft tenor sax solo. George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, sings lead on this tribute to the famous speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., accompanied by the Atlanta Jazz Chorus.

Trumpeter Wallace Roney takes the lead on “In Real Time, an upbeat original penned by Allen and Roney. Allen’s solo in the middle is one of the finer points of the album, aided by Carter’s bass. Though he plays in the background for much of the album, Cobb steps up with a drum solo on the cover of Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha.

Throughout Timeless Portraits and Dreams, Allen’s piano and Carter’s bass keep the listener engaged. Cobb’s drum work is subtle but effective. Lundy, Walden, Roney, Shirley and the Atlanta Jazz Chorus supplement the trio with great results. The collection includes a bonus CD single, “Lift Every Voice and Sing, which features Shirley and the Atlanta Jazz Chorus. Together, they form a gallery of emotions, thought-provoking messages and good jazz.
By Woodrow Wilkins.
**
Geri Allen is a great jazz pianist, and that has never been in doubt.  But if she started her career with a young person’s swagger—playing with firebrand elders like Oliver Lake and being promoted by institutions like Paul Motian and Charlie Haden—then her years of maturity have seemed somehow muted and underwhelming.  It’s not a matter of her talent waning, but Ms. Allen has made a deliberate choice to record music that exhibits a certain jazz classicism.  Her latest, Timeless Portraits & Dreams, as much as screams this on its cover—not only in the title but also in clothing and make-up Allen wears—and even in its font choice.
Soft focus, a gold necklace, shimmering lip gloss, and off—the-shoulder golden gown, then: “Timeless Portraits and Dreams”.  Does this sound like a ripping jazz album or some kind of complicated history lesson?
No doubt: Ms. Allen is a straight-up class act, but I’m afraid I miss the firebrand of yore.  Timeless is assured in many places, but it’s also choked with studied seriousness and distracting guest spots.  It’s a concept album of some sort, yet its finest moments seem beyond the concept entirely.
In her liner notes, Allen makes much of “Jazz” and its centrality to the African-American experience.  She writes about “connections” and about “The Most High”, and the program is plainly conceived as a kind of dialogue between the secular and the spiritual sides of this great music.  Thus, the presence of The Atlanta Jazz Chorus and classical tenor Mr. George Shirley, both of whom contribute to the more serious elements of the album.  But the truth is, the best parts of Timeless Portraits & Dreams are when the trio—Ms. Allen, Ron Carter on bass, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, which is to say a very striking trio indeed—are just swinging.
“Melchezedik” uses the chorus for wordless color, but the action is all in the trio’s easy rapport and graceful swing.  As Carter and Allen rumble a pedal point on the bottom, the leader spins various melodies that burst into the clear once the bassist drops four-on-the-floor and everyone starts swinging.  During this section, of course, the vocals are simply shoved aside so the players can get to work.  And so the superfluous nature of the choir is plain.
The disc’s best sequence—without question—is a string of unfussy tracks at the center of the album that don’t bother with singers and fancy footwork.  It begins with the trio playing a straight-forward blues penned by Ron Carter, “Nearly”, followed by a quartet tune with Ms. Allen’s husband, the brilliant Wallace Roney, on trumpet, “In Real Time”.  Mr. Roney (as always, pleasingly reminiscent of 1960s Miles Davis, but with a healthy sense of individualized harmonic exploration) is pungent and perfectly in sync with the trio, blazing into his high register as the group lights him afire.  The trio plays with gorgeous control on the Herbie Hancock-inspired arrangement of “Embraceable You”, and with flexible surprise on Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha”.  Maybe best of all is the little-played Lil Hardin tune “Just for a Thrill”, where the trio achieves a chamber-like balance of time, harmony, and melody, following a solo intro by the leader that suggests everything that’s good in the jazz tradition.  “Thrill” is given a ballad treatment where Cobb uses his brushes with mastery and Carter is able to fill every gap with his trademark glisses and vocalized slides.
But this wonderful streak of music simply makes the busier “concept” tunes on the album seem unbalanced and clumsy.  “Well Done” is a gospel/soul tune by Kenny Lattimore, given a pseudo bossa arrangement featuring singer Carmen Lundy.  No foul here, but when the jazz chorus enters behind Ms. Lundy on the repeat of the out-chorus, it seems like a resource wasted—or used only because it was available.  Mary Lou Williams’s “I Have a Dream” features Donald Walden’s tenor for 90 pleasing seconds, after which the operatic voice of George Shirley comes on, overripe and gospelized, atop the jazz chorus.  Impressive in concert, no doubt, but jarring and awkward on this record—and so short that it feels like the very definition of gilding the lily.  The title track brings back Ms. Lundy in richly pleasing duet with Ms. Allen—until the jazz chorus enters again toward the end to close oddly what felt like an organically developing, deeply intimate dialogue.
The album also comes with a second “bonus” disc containing only “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—the African-American National Anthem—sung by Shirley, accompanied by the trio and the chorus in utterly straight, non-jazz style.  Intended to be pulled out and used in places other than your living room, I suppose, this tune underlines the serious intentions of Timeless Portraits & Dreams.  Similarly, the title track is part of a suite Ms. Allen is composing for the victims and survivors of 9/11.  But I can’t help feeling that the most spiritual and meaningful music on this record is the good stuff in the middle—the straight rapport of three or four musicians playing straight-ahead blues and jazz and showing how the magic of the African-American cultural heritage has created a mature, even classical art form.  Without any choruses or operatic flourishes, Allen, Carter, and Cobb are all that anyone could need.
But within that narrow, straight-ahead context, perhaps the record label didn’t find enough contrast or marketing pizzazz.  Perhaps Geri Allen didn’t feel the necessary “connections” or link to The Most High when she was just playing I-IV-V with a pair of legends.  Or maybe I’m just being too fussy in not liking how this record asks me to change gears just when I’m getting into the groove.  I think I’d like to hear all of Ms. Allen’s 9/11 Suite, but the short gestures toward gospel and classicism here seems out of place and half-baked.  I yearn for the darting focus of Allen’s much earlier discs, which I urge you to scoop up.
It’s not too late, in my opinion, for Geri Allen to suffer from an attack of mid-life nostalgia for the firey young polyglot pianist she used to be.  C’mon, Ms. Allen: it’s never to late to wear a pair of jeans again.
By Will Layman.
**
Geri Allen, whether playing standards or her own jazz compositions, is one of the most adept, graceful jazz pianists playing in today’s jazz scene. The jazz listener can always rest assured that Geri Allen will give a sparkling, innovative performance, and her piano stylings are always refreshingly original in scope and perspective.
This fine collection contains fourteen songs.  There is also a bonus single CD featuring the song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which features George Shirley singing tenor with the Atlanta Jazz Chorus directed by Dwight Andrews.
The fourteen songs are winners and reflect the creative genius of Geri Allen at her finest performances to date. Songs include “Oh Freedom,” the invigorating and brilliant piano solo of “Melchezedik,” “Portraits and Dreams,” “Well Done,” the remarkable and complex piano solo of “La Strada,” “I Have a Dream,” “Nearly,” “In Real Time,” George Gershwin’s classic “Embraceable You” based on an adaptation by Herbie Hancock and interpreted by Geri Allen, Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha,” “Just for a Thrill,” “Our Lady (for Billie Holiday)” an intimate song composed by Geri Allen featuring Wallace Roney on trumpet, “Timeless Portraits and Dreams,” and “Portraits and Dreams.”
This is a fine CD collection from Geri Allen, one that will delight her fans and bring her new fans! She is in top form. Allen performances sparkle with verve, life, and imagination. A splendid recording, one to cherish and enjoy.
This is Geri Allen at her finest. Highly recommended.
By Lee Prosser.
**
Geri Allen’s musical interests prove to be quite diverse in Timeless Portraits and Dreams, delving into jazz, spirituals, sacred works and originals, accompanied by two of the most in-demand veterans, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb, throughout most of the release. Allen”s stunning solo opener “Oh Freedom” segues directly into another fine work, “Melchezedek,” which showcases both Allen and Carter in the solo spotlight, with wordless vocals by the Atlanta Jazz Chorus adding background color. Singer Carmen Lundy and the chorus are on hand for the spirit-filled “Well Done” and Allen’s gorgeous ballad “Timeless Portraits and Dreams.” Other vocal tracks include two features for tenor George Shirley, including “I Have a Dream” (from Mary Lou’s Mass composed by Mary Lou Williams after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and a vigorous treatment of the piece considered as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Trumpeter Wallace Roney (Allen’s husband) smolders in Allen’s tasty post-bop vehicle “In Real Time” and makes a belated entrance in the tense, strident tribute “Our Lady (For Billie Holiday).” Allen throws the listener a curve with her well-disguised introduction to the trio arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha” and uncovers a neglected gem in Lil Hardin Armstrong’s ballad “Just for a Thrill.” While some jazz fans may prefer to hear Geri Allen in a strictly instrumental setting, they will miss out if they fail to investigate these stimulating sessions. Highly recommended.
By Ken Dryden. AMG.
**
Geri Allen- (Piano),
Ron Carter- (Bass),
Jimmy Cobb- (Drums)
Special guests :
Carmen Lundy- (Vocals),
Wallace Roney- (Trumpet),
George Shirley- (Vocals),
Donald Walden- (Tenor Sax),
and
The Atlanta Jazz Chorus.
**
01. Oh Freedom 1:52
02. Melchezedik 7:06
03. Portraits And Dreams 2:26
04. Well Done 5:20
05. La Strada 4:20
06. I Have A Dream 2:24
07. Nearly 4:27
08. In Real Time 5:40
09. Embraceable You 2:46
10. Ah-Leu-Cha 4:50
11. Just For A Thrill 4:21
12. Our Lady (For Billie Holiday) 5:57
13. Timeless Portraits and Dreams 5:04
14. Portraits And Dreams (Reprise) 1:39
**


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