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Jazz Festival: Geri Allen Trio

Jazz Festival Review: Geri Allen Trio

Review by Tyler Hersey

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Geri Allen

Geri Allen Trio
The Frontroom
November 8

Acclaimed jazz pianist and ethnomusicologist Geri Allen brought her acoustic trio to the Frontroom for the last stop on a short Australasian tour, and though jetlag seemed to be getting the best of her, the level of musicianship on display was astounding and often overwhelming.

Leaning heavily on material from her new Telarc release Timeless Portraits and Dreams, Allen, along with bassist Darryl Hall and drummer Mark Johnson, wove a thick mat of sound with spiralling melodic threads and vivid fragments of colour.

Allen's technique draws heavily upon the chordal work of Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, both pianists in various lineups put together by Miles Davis in the late 50's and early 60's. Unlike many jazz players who hold down the structure of a song by "comping" chords with the left hand while playing single note solos with the right, Allen's hands work together to create full, resonant chords which move in synchronicity up and down the keyboard. This technique was immediately evident in her opening number, 'Portraits and Dreams'. By including slight dissonance and simultaneously playing notes which lay very close together, Allen drew a dense, rich sound out of the piano which suggested far more melodic directions than it fulfilled.

The band's second selection upped the tempo significantly, pushing forward on the insistent high hat of Johnson. In contrast to the opening number, Allen layed down a deep boogie groove with her left hand, almost reminiscent of the opening notes of the 'Peanuts' theme song. She soon added syncopated chordal stabs with her right hand, evoking bumper to bumper traffic and the honking of car horns, before linking together lightning fast runs up and down the keyboard like a blues-laden 'Flight of the Bumble Bee'.

After a lengthy intermission, the performers came alive with a wonderful version of Allen's hymn-like song 'Old Freedom'. The composition moved deliberately through a seemingly endless progression of chords which offered little resolution, echoing the slow and steady march to freedom of the US civil rights movement. This meditative space became fertile ground for group interaction between the players, giving bassist Hall ample room to float beautiful melodies over Allen's thick moving chords. Executing a seamless segue into the song 'Angels', the band upped tempo to swing with a smart, walking bass line and some sensitive piano work, setting a number of heads nodding and feet tapping.

For the centrepiece of the set, Allen featured her song 'In Real Time', which led to some explosive interplay between piano and bass. The groove was driven by amazing work on the ride cymbal by Johnson, which bore a striking resemblance to the fiery drumming of Tony Williams, another Miles Davis alumnus who collaborated with Allen several times before his early death in 1997. Allen interjected typewriter-like staccato chords before steering the band into a thick groove with a bluesy riff in the lower registers of her piano. As a summation of the night's music, this song displayed the wonderful synthesis of influences which inform Allen's playing. By weaving together the soulful melodies of gospel music, the uptempo swing of hard bop, and a dash of avant garde free jazz, Geri Allen has carved a niche for herself as both historian and pioneer.


Wellington International Jazz festival homepage:

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