Jazz CD Reviews

Geri Allen, solo piano – Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations – Motéma

Hometown pride is at the forefront of Geri Allen’s latest solo outlet.

Published on October 28, 2013

Geri Allen, solo piano – Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations – Motéma

Geri Allen, solo piano – Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations – Motéma MTM-128, 54:28 [9/10/13] *****:

(Geri Allen – piano, co-producer; Marcus Belgrave – trumpet (tracks 5, 7, 15); David McMurray – alto saxophone (track 10))

Pianist Geri Allen honors her roots on her fourth Motéma release, Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations. This new collection of material is Allen’s final installment of a solo piano trilogy: her previous solo piano projects comprise 2010’s Flying toward the Sound and 2011’s holiday outing, A Child Is Born. Allen grew up in Detroit, and during the 54-minute, 15-track Grand River Crossings Allen performs music associated with Motown (Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder), compositions penned by fellow students from the Motor City’s celebrated Cass Technical High School (Gerald Wilson), other Detroit artists (the late Roy Brooks and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave; Belgrave also guests on three cuts) and musicians inspired by her hometown music (the Beatles). Allen seasons her tributary interpretations with brief original interludes which add cohesion to Grand River Crossings, which is named after the pre-Interstate, 216-mile thoroughfare which links the Motor City to Lansing and Grand Rapids. The CD title refers to one of Allen’s childhood rites of passage, learning to cross the large, busy boulevard (the accompanying booklet includes a historical photograph which depicts the prominent city street, and also has liner notes by Allen, and Detroit-born session man, composer and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes).

Allen’s first recollection of Motown’s soundtrack of a generation occurred when she was seven years old and heard Marvin Gaye on local radio. Regarding Gaye’s music, Allen states, “the music and poetry still blows my mind each time I hear it.” She reveals Gaye’s sensibility and soulful fearlessness on two versions of his tunes. Allen’s rendition of “Inner City Blues” has a forcefully insistent tone which mirrors Gaye’s resonant imagery and urban poignancy: the repeating rhythmic lines echo the ache and anger which fueled Gaye’s top-ten hit single. Allen self-confidently reworks Gaye’s ballad “Save the Children,” and extends the passionate declaration with re-harmonizations which utilize minor keys, low notes, and percussive chords which instrumentally paraphrase Gaye’s ardent lyrics. Whereas Gaye’s song ebbs and peaks dramatically, Allen sustains a restrained incline and slower tempo. One notable cover is Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, where Allen maintains an instinctive, active pulse and generates lively changes, showcasing melodic subtleties: unfortunately, the tune ends too soon. Another standout is Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown,” which Allen starts with an exquisite, exploratory introduction, and then symbolically connects with Robinson’s impeccable arrangement. Allen incorporates scintillating little touches, such as embracing and then riffing on the main theme, supplies a searching improvisation, and throughout crafts a deft lyrical facility. There is a similar glide and delicacy on an elegant conversion of Wonder’s smooth groove song “That Girl.” While the cut is not quintessential Wonder, Allen furnishes an understated charm which supports an affecting, rhythmic foundation. Allen registers a physical poise on the emotive Four Tops hit, “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” where she unravels intricate mysteries from an unassuming melody. She confirms her enormous talent as she exposes the erudite layers concealed beneath this characteristic Motown hit.

Piano/trumpet duets are far from the norm, and the three Allen does with her mentor, Belgrave, are distinct. Initially they undertake Brooks’ “The Smart Set” (found on Brook’s once impossible-to-find 1973 LP Ethnic Expressions, finally reissued three years ago on CD). Whereas Brooks’ version was an animated large ensemble piece accentuated by Eddie Jefferson’s hip vocals, Belgrave and Allen turn “The Smart Set” into a simmering, minimalist track which stresses Belgrave’s quiet side. He and Allen also do an intuitive interpretation of Belgrave’s potent “Space Odyssey,” from his eclectic 1974 album, Gemini. Here, a sprinkling of avant-garde shadings slides in and out, with Belgrave delivering breathy tonality filtered through concentrated reverb, and dispenses occasional percussive components, while Allen tackles the melodic line, assumes the rhythmic background and contributes sporadic solo elements. The two also launch into a lightly-swinging performance of Wilson’s “Nancy Joe” (sic), more commonly known as “Nancy Jo,” previously done by Joe Pass, sitting in with Wilson’s jazz big band.

The funk gets deep when Allen gels on “Itchin’ in My Heart,” alongside Detroit-based alto saxophonist David McMurray, who was a member of Was (Not Was) and has several solo releases. The Supremes version was pure Motown soul-pop, but Allen and McMurray create a groove-grounded approach closer to Junior Walker & the All-Stars. The caveat: the cut seems nicked off at the conclusion, with a solitary McMurray outro, when another chorus might have given some extra push. On her own, Allen does better with a tender reading of “Stoned Love,” also from the Supremes’ repertoire. Allen slows down the tempo to nearly a requiem inclination, and laces in some gospel flavoring, which imparts a nuanced quality. A sense of spiritualism also guides Allen’s stroll through Lennon and McCartney’s “Let It Be,” which other jazz artists such as Stanley Turrentine, Joshua Redman and Bud Shank have redone. Geri Allen has almost 20 albums to date, but the personal, beautiful and beautifully recorded Grand River Crossings is doubtless one of her best. Kudos are proffered to engineer Duke Marcos, who brought out all of the details (from subtle shades to intemperate dissonance) from Allen’s stunning-sounding Fazioli piano.

TrackList: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’; Tears of a Clown; That Girl; Grand River Crossings I; The Smart Set; Let It Be; Space Odyssey; In Appreciation; Baby I Need Your Lovin’; Itching in My Heart; Stoned Love; Grand River Crossing II; Inner City Blues; Save the Children; Nancy Joe.

—Doug Simpson




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