Karrin Allyson digs the late-night groove, even when it's a little heartbreaking. After a dozen releases on Concord Jazz over the course of two decades – and three GRAMMY® nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Album along the way – the versatile vocalist/pianist still believes that the emotional connection that takes place in a small, quiet club during the late hours is one of the best parts of the jazz experience.
She says it eloquently in the liner notes to her new CD, 'Round Midnight, her thirteenth Concord recording : "Imagine yourself, in the city, walking late at night," she writes. "It's 'Round Midnight. The wind is cold, but you hear some warm sounds and you follow your ear down into a small, dark club. There's a woman at the piano singing these intimate ballads – one after the other. Maybe you've just recently suffered a heartache, or maybe the lyrics, melodies and harmonies evoke feelings you have somewhere deep down inside."
That woman at the piano is Allyson – more so on this recording than any other in her discography – and creating that intimate connection was her prime directive throughout the project. "Every piano or keyboard part that you hear on this album is played by me," she says. "I've played two or three tunes on previous recordings, but this is the first time in thirteen records that I've played them all. I've been doing that more and more in my live shows for the last three years, so it just seemed like the natural thing to do on this record."
The eleven tracks on 'Round Midnight come from a wide variety of sources, including Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mandel, Thelonious Monk, Stephen Sondheim, even Charlie Chaplin. But regardless of who wrote the songs and when, Allyson ties them all together with the same melancholy thread with which they were originally spun. Her combination of rich yet understated vocals and subtle piano lines tell a timeless story that's best understood in what another great singer used to call "the wee small hours of the morning."
"They're heartbreak songs," says Allyson, "and one cathartic way to get over a heartbreak is to sing about it, or listen to someone else sing about it. Embracing the difficult emotions is part of the healing process."
She's able to tug at the heartstrings with the help of some talented players. Guitarist Rod Fleeman has been part of her crew – in the studio and onstage – for a span of more than 20 years and at least a few continents. L.A.-based saxophonist/flutist/clarinetist Bob Sheppard has been a recurring figure in Allyson's West Coast dates. Harmonicist Randy Weinstein has been an occasional collaborator on past projects, all the way back to Allyson's early days in Kansas City. Bassist Ed Howard, a top-notch New York-based player whose previous associations include Shirley Horn and Roy Haynes, has been a part of Allyson's live show for five years, but 'Round Midnight marks his debut appearance on one of her recordings.
Drummer Matt Wilson is the newcomer, but one whom Allyson has known for several years. "I've always really admired his playing," she says, "I wanted to create a lot of space in these songs, and I knew he was capable of doing that."
'Round Midnight is latest example of Allyson's life-long attraction to great songs by enduring songwriters. Born in Great Bend, Kansas, and raised in Omaha, Nebraska (save for a brief period in the San Francisco Bay area during her high school years), she started playing piano at five. Her mother was a classical pianist, while her father's tastes ran more toward folk music. The singer-songwriters of the 1970s – Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and the like – were among her first inspirations to become a singer.
During high school and college, her musical aspirations were all over the map – all-girl rock bands, funk bands, five-hour bar gigs playing solo piano, whatever felt comfortable and helped pay the bills. Her taste for jazz developed during her college years at University of Nebraska in Omaha, where she sang in a big band and shifted her focus away from the piano and more toward the microphone.
After college, she became a regular at a Kansas City nightclub before signing to Concord for the 1992 release of her debut album, I Didn't Know About You – an album that landed her a spot in Playboy's Annual Reader's Poll alongside jazz giants like Ella Fitzgerald and Shirley Horn. The albums kept coming at a steady pace throughout the remainder of the decade and into the next. Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane, released in 2001, earned two GRAMMY® nominations, while Footprints (2006) and Imagina: Songs of Brasil (2008) both scored GRAMMY® nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Allyson has maintained a busy schedule outside the studio as well. In addition to her frequent club dates (she spends two days out of three on tour), she has performed at some of the top concert halls throughout the U.S., including Carnegie Hall for an all-star tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, and gigs with the Kansas City Symphony and the Omaha Symphony.
She left Kansas City in 2000 to make New York City her new home. It's just the kind of town where you're likely to wander into one of those small, late-night jazz clubs and hear someone just like her play and sing the kinds of songs that make 'Round Midnight the heartbreaking yet fulfilling experience that it is.
The set opens with Bill Evans's "Turn Out the Stars," a song whose poignant lyrics by Gene Lees are made even more introspective by Allyson's decision to slow down the tempo and stretch the time at certain points along the way. "Bob Sheppard plays every woodwind instrument on this album so beautifully," she says. "His tenor saxophone solo here was the perfect, soulful addition."
The followup track is a quiet reading of Paul Simon's "April Come She Will" that examines the human heart through the prism of changing seasons. "Whenever nature is referenced with life and love, I feel even more connected with it all," says Allyson. "Rod Fleeman plays a beautiful guitar solo."
Further in, Allyson delivers a wistful rendition of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," the bittersweet standard by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf, based on the classic T.S. Eliot line: "April is the cruelest month…" "I've sung this song for years and always wrestled with its long form and many lyrics," says Allyson. "I wanted to make it swing, yet still have it convey the sadness of the story that's told in the lyrics. "
Her version of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" includes an intro and outro that harken back to her classical piano days. Her take on the song is consistent with Chaplin's original lyrics. "I think I'm trying to talk myself into smiling when I certainly don't feel like it, but maybe not buying that it really works," she says. Randy Weinstein, who plays harmonica here, "always adds a lovely quality and mood to whatever he plays on."
It doesn't get much more poignant – indeed, almost tragic – than "Send in the Clowns," Stephen Sondheim's classic from A Little Night Music. "Rod's lovely arrangement, with its subtle harmonic surprises and laid back groove, give it a new perspective," says Allyson. "Life is interesting. We can make as many intentional decisions as we want, but it's always full of surprises – good and bad."
Allyson closes with the title track, Monk's iconic composition that puts the final touch on the jazz club vibe that has taken shape amid the preceding ten tracks. She's especially fond of the minimal but effective arrangement. "Rod suggested recording it as a bass and voice duet," she says. "Ed Howard has been working with us for several years now and always adds a solid, soulful touch."
In the end, no matter what the arrangement or the voicing, it's all about telling the story – even if the story is about heartbreak. Sometimes the best way to do it is to draw people into a quiet space in the late hours 'Round Midnight – a time and place where their guard is down and they're open to music that speaks the language of the heart.
"What I'm most interested in doing on this record – and on all my records – is reaching people and communicating with them," says Allyson. "That's the thing that inspires me more than anything else."