There was a time, decades ago, when jazz was pop music, when the vocalists and instrumentalists graced the covers of major magazines. But in this bombastic, hip-hopped era, few players are known outside tight circles. To some, the genre, particularly jazz singing, has become a stuffy closet - elitist and exclusive. The standards are revisited over and over and over again.
You rarely hear about the adventurous ones, the artists who take real risks with the music. Which is what jazz is all about: pushing forward, dismantling a song and putting it back together with a fresh perspective, an individual and communal touch.
"Jazz breathes. It's a living entity changing all the time in a song," says acclaimed vocalist-pianist Karrin Allyson, who plays the Birchmere Sunday night.
Calling from her Manhattan home, the Kansas native continues, "Soul, inspiration, feeling, emotion, history, intelligence - jazz has it all. All of that still draws me to the music, especially the improvisational part."
With each album, Allyson paints spare, exquisite musical portraits with a variety of colors as she explores different themes. On her last album, 2002's In Blue, she delved into the heart-draining stuff, the hand-on-hip-sassy material, evoking pastel shades and vibrant tones of the blues. Her latest and ninth album, Wild For You, hits stores June 8. And like its predecessor and the one before that, 2001's gorgeous Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane, the new CD carries a theme. On the 13-cut record, Allyson recasts songs from her teen years - the introspective singer-songwriter period of the early- to mid-'70s. Elton John ("Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word"), Carole King ("It's Too Late"), James Taylor ("Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight") and others are brilliantly re-interpreted.
"I was very influenced by singer-songwriters," Allyson says, "and that's what made me want to do this [album]. Before I started singing, I played piano, which I still do. During my teen years, I would go out and get the sheet music to the pop songs I loved. The songs became like a part of me."
The original versions of some of the classics featured on Wild For You sparkled with jazzy overtones: Roberta Flack's 1974 smash "Feel Like Makin' Love" and Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" from '71 and "Help Me" from '74. In bringing the pop songs into the jazz idiom, "I worked with [arranger] Gil Goldstein," Allyson says. "We wanted to change the format because the originals were so close to me. I gave Gil a basic outline for the arrangements, and he did something totally different. And I liked it. I wanted the songs to be accessible so that people would recognize the songs."
The melodies are still intact for the most part. Goldstein provided sparse, open musical settings in which the songs unfurl. Allyson's thoughtful, slightly hoarse delivery imbues the lyrics with personality, a dollop of soul. Her scat near the fade of Cat Stevens' bittersweet "Wild World," one of the album's highlights, is fun, creative and well-paced. °Allyson weaves in and out of the tricky changes of "Help Me" with grace and ease.
"I'm not the kind of singer you can hand an arrangement and I'll just sing it," Allyson says. "I have to be in the process of making the music."
The singer-musician has been making albums since 1992. Her debut, I Didn't Know About You, came out on Concord, which is still her recording home. The set impressed critics with its mature, chance-taking approach to such standards as "Nature Boy" and "'S Wonderful." By the time the album hit the streets, though, Allyson had already spent more than a decade paying her dues in the sometimes merciless world of jazz. While attending the University of Nebraska in the '80s, Allyson, studying classical piano at the time, discovered the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae. As an undergraduate, she performed in an all-female folk-rock band called Tomboy. But after earning her degree, she honed her burgeoning jazz skills in bars and supper clubs in and around Kansas City, Mo.
"Now there are jazz studies programs young people can take advantage of in college," Allyson says, "but with me, I learned on the road, on the job - playing the bars, the clubs and learning from different musicians."
Although she plays more than 260 dates a year and has amassed critical praise since the beginning of her recording career, Allyson has yet to break in the way Diana Krall has. The marketing behind the bluesy singer is similar to that of the Canadian chanteuse - sexy, leggy promotional shots; the hair, makeup and clothes are chic and elegantly understated. But Allyson, whose Ballads album garnered two Grammy nominations three years ago, still floats under the radar. The engaging Wild For You may change that, though.
"There's a lot of business involved at this level in my career," she says. "I'm on tour 75 percent of the time. There are a lot of logistics involved with that. But I would like to get to the point where I can let go of the business side and concentrate more on writing and studying more of the music."
Until then, Allyson will keep changing up the groove, pushing the music forward and taking jazz back to pop.
Karrin Allyson plays the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Sunday night at 7:30. Tickets are $20 and $25. For more information, visit www.birchmere.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun