Lolly Allen's first audition as a jazz vibraphonist was not propitious. She was a high school student in upstate New York, attending a summer band camp run by the prestigious Eastman School of Music. For her placement audition, the call was for Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser." Allen recalls, "It did not sound good."
It wasn't just that she'd never played or even heard the Monk classic before. (She played it "correctly," she allows.) But as a mallet percussionist, the closest she'd come to vibes was the xylophone and marimba. Not knowing any better, she played the entire solo piece with the pedal down. "I didn't know what else to do with it," she says. The result was cacophony. That said, the camp did place her in a jazz band. "It wasn't the 'A' band, but once you're in the high school summer camp music program, they have to put you somewhere "
More important, though, was that Allen came back from camp inspired. "I said to my parents, 'I'm a vibraphone player now.'"
Years later, that identity is secure, as made clear on Allen's new release, Coming Home (OA2). The album not only shows off her virtuosity as a soloist and superb accompanist, but also as a composer and arranger with impeccable taste in standards. She tackles core bop from Dizzy Gillespie ("Bebop") and Tadd Dameron ("If You Could See Me Now"), as well as Afro-Cuban and Brazilian classics by Mario Bauza, Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim, respectively. The opening track, Horace Silver's "The Hippest Cat in Hollywood," offers tribute to the Los Angeles scene that's now Allen's home base. "All the music I chose is personal to me," she says. "It's from all the jazz greats who have influenced me, composers who have written beautiful music."
In such company, Allen's originals hold their own, with the samba of the title cut and the fleet "I Got Rhythm" changes of "Little Hummingbird" making a case for future standard status. The Dameron cut, as well as the Johnny Mandel classic "Emily," display Allen's warmth with a ballad — and her subtle mastery of that pesky sustain pedal — while a piece by her friend, veteran big-band trumpeter Carl Saunders, nods both to the vibraphonist ("Lolly's Folly") and the big-band tradition.
Arrangements extend from quintet (with L.A. vets like Saunders, pianist Tom Owens and drummer Paul Kreibich) to nonet. Young alto and tenor player Danny Janklow is exceptional throughout. "I wanted something like Cannonball [Adderley] meets the Shearing Quintet meets Jobim meets Afro-Cuban, with an arranging sensibility from Strayhorn and Ellington," Allen says.
It was Ellington who opened her to the possibilities of jazz. "Our high-school band played a lot of different kinds of music, but when a Duke Ellington chart hit the music stand, you knew it was going to be great music. It made everything else sound like crap." Allen's feeling for jazz was reinforced when she got to the New England Conservatory, where she applied her classical training to vibraphone studies, while also studying voice and improvisation. "I knew jazz was my language," she says.
Allen's only previous album as a leader, 2004's self-released AllenHazFunk, was made in Boston following her NEC days. In L.A., she's been a regular with Bill Cunfliffe's big band, as well as playing with vibes legend Terry Gibbs, saxophonist Bob Mintzer and the late trumpeter Donald Byrd.
Allen isn't sure what her next project as a leader will be, but she expresses no doubt about her goals or her place in the music. "It's kind of cool to represent as a woman in jazz, especially on an instrument that isn't known for a lot of famous females," she says. "Making a small dent in jazz history — that's something I want to keep doing, progressing as a bandleader and improviser."