Every blade is sharp in Geri Allen's Post-Bop Universe

A lot of the older jazz greats of my lifetime periodically have decried the direction of the music plotted by the youngsters. To hear some of the old-timers tell the tale, youths have faulty musical compasses, or they are too lazy to learn the basics, or they have no concept of (choose one): rhythm, swing, style, improvisation, respect, musical history or paying dues.

It often turns out that the complaints leveled by an older generation are correct. During the past 50 years, adventurous young musicians have started down what turned out to be blind alleys and have had to retrace their steps, often to the detriment of their careers. However, the famous contempt that Miles Davis had for the upstart Ornette Coleman hasn't kept Coleman from a enjoying his long stint on the bandstand and in the recording studio and, though his music seems to have changed since he arrived with great fanfare in New York in the late 1950s, perhaps it is that we listeners simply hear differently. Our ears have become more educated, more accustomed to accepting unfamiliar forms on their own terms rather than imposing a structural preconception on them and then accepting or rejecting them on prejudicial grounds.

Likewise, right up to his death, Dizzy Gillespie groused about the new generation of players who were capturing the attention of an equally new generation of listeners. Wynton Marsalis, who was grabbing most of the spotlight at the time, came in for the most damning of Gillespie's faint praise. While Diz expressed respect for the young lions' talents, he claimed until his death that from them he wasn't hearing innovation, only homage. And that, he felt, amounted to a glance backward rather than a foray ahead.

Now, I have a few beefs with the Marsalis approach also, and there are several musical arguments I'd like to have with him. But it does not follow that a broader popularity necessarily means a stagnant music. About 10 years ago I was grappling with this notion when I ran across a vibrant, breathtakingly talented pianist named Geri Allen.

I'd not heard of her before and I bought a recording titled "Triangular" on Blue Note that featured Allen, Ralph Peterson on drums, and Phil Bowler and Essiet Essiet holding down bass duties on different cuts. Alas, the recording was in audiocassette form and late one night the player in my car ate it, the gem of my then-current list of favorites. I haven't been able to track down the year it was recorded. And, come to think of it, I haven't seen it in CD form either, though there must be one out there somewhere.

Nevertheless, I have a very pleasant memory of a killer version of "Bemsha Swing" and another outstanding cut, the old chestnut, "Just You, Just Me." Losing that recording broke my heart because Geri Allen represents to me an artist who resolves all the petty questions of homage versus innovation that we jazzers like to dither about.

Make no mistake about it: the woman knows her stuff and her style reveals a spirit of adventure that equals an obvious reverence for the foundations upon which she builds. If there is such a thing as the mainstream in jazz, Geri Allen represents its most intriguing eddies and deepest riptides.

I think of her music as post-bop, but the jazz that appeals to me most of all the form's subgenres is that which is rooted in bop. I deem bop to be in the shortest line of descent from the blues. But I don't think Allen would agree, because she is comfortable in free jazz, balladry, large ensembles, small ensembles, solo -- there just doesn't appear to be a jazz chore she can't handle. In her work we taste the soulful flavors of Horace Silver's influence; we marvel at the improvisational daring and abandon transmitted through her from Keith Jarrett; we sip the elegant champagne of vintage Bill Evans. Her playing expands and contracts like a living organism and each listening is akin to the fascinating experience of watching cells subdivide and then, willy-nilly, roll back together to present us like a unity, like globs of mercury coalescing into one.

Her eclecticism included an association with Brooklyn's "M-Base Collective," which, my "All Music Guide" informs me, issued an eponymous CD in 1993. With a come-and-go lineup, M-Base (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations) had, by that time, spent a lot of time since the mid-1980s in the woodshed, stalking the elusive means of making improvisation new. Scott Yanow reports in "AMG" that the group's quest made use of "funky (but surprisingly unpredictable) rhythms, unusual interval jumps in the solos and a nonmelodic approach."

This is expressed in Allen's playing in quite a transcendental way. She seems to have limbs in every direction and draws instantly from her vast store of experience, knowledge and prowess. Her playing often reminds me of a variety of pianists, then, in the eccentric turn of a phrase or a hard left turn into unknown territory, her playing pulls me back to the reality that there is nothing at all derivative about her approach to her art. I can think of no other musician working today, on any instrument, who is so thoroughly and consistently surprising, delightful and deserving of every listener she wins over.
I allow my continuing mourning over the loss of "Triangular" to be salved by some other Allen sides that deserve your attention, too. Here they are, all still in print in the United States:

-- "Segments" [DIW, 1989];
-- "Some Aspects of Water" [live] [Storyville, 1996];
-- "Gathering" [Verve, 1998]; and
-- "Live at the Village Vanguard" [DIW, 2000].

I know it's a short list, but, never fear. Allen is only coming up on her 45th birthday. We have many fine years of listening ahead of us. If the Detroit native keeps that bright flame of hers alive, someday we may all look back to her body of work and point out that it gave birth to a new era in jazz. She has the chops and the savvy to make that prediction come true.