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Geri Allen

The embodiment of what a modern-day jazz pianist should be, Geri Allen was one of the most respected and versatile improvisers of her generation. Well-versed in the acoustic jazz tradition, her influences spoke to her broad-minded aesthetic, touching not only on post-bop, but world music, funk, pop, rock, and free jazz. Emerging from the fertile Detroit jazz scene of the '70s, she built upon her early lessons with legendary trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and pianist Kenny Barron. Her own albums, beginning with 1984's Printmakers alongside bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Andrew Cyrille, ranged from hard bop to avant-garde. She was also a noteworthy collaborator, exploring electric jazz and funk with Brooklyn's "M-Base" collective, leading a trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and working on projects with maverick performers like Betty Carter and Ornette Coleman. She garnered widespread acclaim in the '90s with albums like The Nurturer, Maroons, and The Gathering. It was around this time that she won the Downbeat Reader's poll two years in a row and formed a close creative partnership with trumpeter Wallace Roney with whom she was married for over a decade until their divorce. Along with performing, Allen taught at the University of Michigan and held the position of Director of Jazz Studies at her alma mater the University of Pittsburgh. She recorded a series of fine later career albums, for Motema, including 2012's Detroit and Motown-inspired Grand River Crossings and 2015's Perfection, before her 2017 death from cancer. A posthumously-released collaboration with Kurt Rosenwinkel, A Lovesome Thing, arrived in 2023 offering a poignant reminder of her deep creativity and ongoing musical legacy. Born in 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan, Allen took up the piano at age seven. She received her early jazz education at the famed Cass Technical High School in Detroit, where her mentor was the highly regarded trumpeter/teacher Marcus Belgrave. In 1979, Allen earned her bachelor's degree in jazz studies from Howard University in Washington, D.C. After graduation, she moved to New York City, where she studied with the veteran bop pianist Kenny Barron. From there, at the behest of the jazz educator Nathan Davis, Allen attended the University of Pittsburgh, earning a master's degree in ethnomusicology, returning to New York in 1982. In the mid-'80s, Allen formed an association with the Brooklyn "M-Base" crowd that surrounded alto saxophonist Steve Coleman. Allen played on several of Coleman's albums, including his first, 1985's Motherland Pulse. Allen's own first album, The Printmakers, with Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille, from a year earlier, showcased the pianist's more avant-garde tendencies. In 1988 came perhaps her first mature group statement, Etudes, a cooperative trio effort with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian -- Allen's loose-limbed lyricism and off-center linearity were perfectly complemented by the innate tunefulness of bassist Haden and the unerring timbral sense of drummer Motian. In the '90s, Allen signed first with Blue Note, then Verve. Her subsequent records placed her in ever more conventional contexts, supported by the cream of the mainstream "Young Lions" crop. As a soloist, however, Allen continued to push the improvisational envelope, as evidenced by Sound Museum, a 1996 recording made under the leadership of Ornette Coleman. The solo Gathering followed in 1998. Allen was named the top Talent Deserving Wider Recognition among pianists in the 1993 and 1994 Down Beat magazine critics' polls. Her significant collaborators included saxophonists Oliver Lake, Arthur Blythe, and Julius Hemphill, trumpeter Lester Bowie, and singer Betty Carter. At the start of the 21st century, Allen recorded Live at the Village Vanguard with Motian and Haden for the Japanese DIW imprint. She followed it with another label change in 2004 when she moved to Telarc for Life of a Song with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. She remained on the label for 2006's Timeless Portraits and Dreams, a collection of spirituals, gospel songs, and bebop tunes. Her rhythm section for the date included bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb, with trumpeter Wallace Roney appearing on a version of Charlie Parker's "Au-Leu-Cha." Allen not only changed labels again in 2009, but her standard piano trio configuration as well. Three Pianos for Jimi, on Douglas Records, is a tribute to legendary rock guitarist Hendrix. It was recorded with two other pianists -- brothers Mark and Scott Batson -- and featured no other instrumentation. Allen, who also served as an associate professor of music at the University of Michigan, recorded her solo piano work Flying Toward the Sound, which celebrated the contributions and influence of Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock, in 2009. It was released on the Motéma imprint in 2010. In 2011, Allen released the Christmas-themed A Child Is Born, featuring a mix of traditional carols, hymns, and some original songs. In 2012, she issued Secret of the Wind, on Outnote, a duet album with vocalist Elisabeth Kontomanou. Allen revisited the sounds of her hometown on 2013's Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations. Geri Allen died of complications from cancer on June 27, 2017, two weeks after her 60th birthday. An archival release, A Lovesome Thing, arrived in 2023 and captured the pianist's 2012 live duo performance with the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, recorded as part of the Jazz à la Villette Festival in Paris
© Matt Collar & Thom Jurek /TiVo
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Discography

12 album(s) • Sorted by Bestseller

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