Grammy-nominated vocalist and pianist Karrin Allyson has the refined musical sophistication and technique of a veteran academic. She also has the nonchalant charm of a vintage variety show emcee and the authentic enthusiasm of a young jazz record collector. It’s a rich and seductive mix. The crowd at the College of Charleston’s Cistern was quite entertained by it all on Friday evening.
Allyson and her backing trio kicked off Spoleto’s Wells Fargo Jazz Series with an elegant and surprisingly soulful set on Friday. After a polite and earnest introduction from jazz series director Michael Grofsorean, Allyson greeted an audience of about 600, sat down behind a full-sized grand piano at stage right, and gracefully eased into the soft, opening verses of Bill Evans’ “Turn Out the Stars,” the lead-off song from her new album, Round Midnight.
Allyson’s band — longtime guitarist Rod Fleeman, drummer Billy Drummond, and upright bassist and Ed Howard — gathered in a tight formation across from her piano. As the song gathered momentum, Allyson guided her bandmates through several tempo and time signature changes, creating a subtle and dramatic groove. Starting the concert with such a sultry and moody piece was a bold and clever move. The audience was intrigued.
Switching from the grand to a vintage Fender Rhodes keyboard, Allyson and the fellas switched gears right away with a balmy, mostly quiet reworking of Paul Simon’s “April Come She Will.” With a 4/4 rhythm, the song resembled an old hit by Carol King or Barbra Streisand (circa 1972) more than anything from the jazz charts. Drummond’s low-volume pitter-patter on the snare and high-hat actually drove the band effectively. Fleeman took the first of several tasty guitar solos on the song. Amusingly, he stood up from his chair and leaned toward Allyson and his bandmates. He sat back down afterward. He did this with every solo of the set. It was a cute move.
The audio mix was great in the Cistern yard. Allyson’s voice rang out with clarity, and the balance between instruments was perfect. Her piano sounded lively and warm. Drummond’s crisp brush work and cymbal taps came through brilliantly. Howard’s bowed low notes and nicely executed solos were expertly levelled into the mix. Unfortunately, an odd clicking sound accompanied the songs where Allyson played her Fender Rhodes. It was as if the tapping of her foot on the stage was amplified through nearby microphone stand. Luckily, the stray sounds resembled a metronome, clicking away with almost-exact timing.
The foursome looked like they were having a great time, especially as they detoured from the swingin’ American ballads to the Latin-flavored tunes of the middle of the set. Allyson crooned and scat-sang in Portuguese on the legendary Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “A Felicidade” (a.k.a. “Happiness”). The cabaret-like “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” by Harry Carroll and Joseph McCarthy utilized a melody from European composer Frédéric Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu, Opus 66. Allyson showed off her range on this melancholic number, easing in and out of notes with a strong sense of control and feeling.
One of the highlights of the evening was a swanky but chilled-out take on Duke Ellington’s popular hit “Sophisticated Lady.” Fleeman sneaked a melodic bit of “Take the A Train” into his guitar solo during the upbeat bossa nova “O Pato (The Duck).” The biggest crowd-pleaser was their swingin’ rendition of “Round Midnight,” the title track of her latest, composed by pianist Thelonious Monk. Allyson and the band twisted the familiar melody into their own, soulful jam, propelled by Howard’s pulsating basslines.
Allyson and her collaborators certainly displayed plenty of technical proficiency and flair, and they expressed themselves with cool chemistry, emotion, and mutual support. More than a simple jazz recital, this kick-off concert was a uniquely moving experience.