Karrin Allyson

A Kiss for Brazil



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MUSIC REVIEW BY Andrew Gilbert, The Mercury News


No matter where you find Karrin Allyson, it's a sure bet that she's keeping the best company.

One of jazz's great polyglot vocalists — she's honed an extensive repertoire of songs in French and Portuguese — the New York City-based singer plunges back into the Brazilian songbook on her new album "A Kiss for Brazil" (Origin Records). It's a musical journey she's made before, most conspicuously on 1999's alluring "From Paris to Rio" and 2008's "Imagina: Songs of Brasil," which were both released by Concord Records, the label that released her first dozen albums starting in 1993.

The five-time Grammy Award nominee didn't really set out to make another Brazilian jazz project, "but my desire to sing with Rosa Passos spurred it," she said, referring to the beloved vocalist and guitarist from Salvador da Bahia, the greatest living bossa nova artist. "I knew she was coming through New York to play with Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at Lincoln Center so I set it up."

Allyson featured Passos on two tracks on "A Kiss For Brazil," the album she'll be drawing on June 30 at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, where she performs with an excellent Los Angeles combo featuring pianist Miro Sprague, bassist Karl McComas, and drummer Dan Schnelle. "They work together as a trio and are a very tight unit," said Allyson, who also accompanies herself on piano on some pieces.

Sprague has been Allyson's West Coast mainstay for most of the past decade, including several Bay Area runs. As one of the Southland's leading accompanists he's made forays north in recent years with artists like saxophonist Remy Le Boeuf and vocalist Sara Gazarek.

Passos won't be at Bach on Sunday, but Allyson is collaborating with another superlative singer at Oakland's Sound Room July 5-6, when Kenny Washington joins her for two nights of musical conversation. They've formed a solid mutual admiration society in recent years, catching each other's shows and occasionally sitting in with each other. But the Sound Room engagement marks their first formal collaboration.

"I love the way Karrin is never pretentious about her vocals," said Washington, who plays Keys Jazz Bistro June 28-29 with a trio led by pianist John R. Burr, a monthly residency that has contributed greatly to making the North Beach club one of the region's leading jazz vocal showcases.

"I like her for her honesty and musicality, on piano and vocals. She just sings the songs as the legendary artists used to do. She's not trying to dress it up in a non-musical way."

Allyson connected with Karen Van Leuven, who founded and runs the Sound Room with her husband Robert Bradsby, at Dizzy's Club when they both caught Washington's show at Jazz at Lincoln Center venue a few years ago. Van Leuven and Bradsby have been major supporters of Washington since the New Orleans native arrived in San Francisco in 1995. They immediately took to the idea of presenting him in a different context with Allyson.

"We'll be doing duet-y things, and some things apart," Allyson said. "It's billed as a musical conversation, and that's what we have. One of our favorites to sing together in 'The Shadow of Your Smile.'"

As a jazz vocalist who doesn't perform with elaborate charts, Washington likes to let the music unfold on stage, a situation many singers aren't equipped to navigate. He's done a few memorable gigs sharing the stage with Kim Nalley, "where it feels more like having a horn player on the stage," he said. "Most important with another singer is that you're encouraging and feeling each other. With Kim and definitely with Karrin we get up there without a lot preparation, and most of the time it just works."

Allyson's shows aren't really a homecoming, but she does have some deep Bay Area ties that preceded Carl Jefferson signing her to Concord, which was known as a singer's label. She grew up in Omaha, but after her parents split up her mother moved to the Bay Area, and frequent visits led to her moving out west to finish high school.

"I spent my senior year in the Oakland Hills at Holy Names High School," she said. "I dabbled with theater in Hayward and did a couple of plays there," before matriculating to the University of Nebraska Omaha where she majored in classical piano and minored in French.

Some three decades after Concord's release of her debut album, 1992's "I Didn't Know About You," Allyson continues to expand on the promise of that eclectic program. She's proceeding with style, in the company of fellow musical masters.





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