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Geri Allen's 'Timeless Portraits and Dreams'

DAVID WAS reporting:

The fact that jazz pianist Geri Allen hails from my hometown of Detroit is reason enough to like her music, but chauvinism tells but half the tale.


It's musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was with a jazz review.

WAS: She is also a noble successor to the legendary players who inspired her, names like Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans. That she achieved such heights in the male-dominated fraternity of jazz is testimony to her talent and resolve.

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WAS: Her new CD on the Telarc label, Timeless Portraits and Dreams, just came out, and it's a stunner.

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WAS: Born in 1957 and educated at a legendary arts high school called Cass Tech, Allen is among the music's best-educated players and is still on the faculty of the University of Michigan, teaching jazz piano and improvisation studies. But there's no hint of the cloistered academic life in her music, which is informed by the same spirit of joy, solemnity and spiritual yearning that guided men like John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.

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WAS: Not only does she surround herself with great players like bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb on this album; she has also been a first-call side woman for a dizzying array of fellow artists, from saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Ornette Coleman, to singers Betty Carter and Mary Wilson of the Supremes. She still speaks fondly of Motown Records as an early inspiration, and one can hear such lyricism in both her playing and writing.

A respected composer in her own right, she's a keeper of the keys to the jazz tradition and to the cultural and spiritual life of the black community that nurtured its hothouse growth. Her liner notes might make the cynical wince a bit; that is, if her music didn't equal her high-minded words in both intention and effect.

Jazz embodies all that is the best in us, she writes, and because it is a clear reflection of who we are, it can also reflect the wide range of human strength and frailties.

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WAS: You can feel that strength in her spirited and hard-swinging version of Charlie Parker's Ah-Leu-Cha, and her equally pensive and tremulous side in a heartbreaking solo version of Nino Rota's theme from Fellini's La Strada.

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WAS: And if that isn't breadth enough for you, she brings in George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to sing at the Met, to give an impassioned reading of Lift Every Voice and Sing.

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WAS: This is a showcase for the black musical tradition that she honors so faithfully: swing versus bling.

BRAND: The recording by Geri Allen is called Timeless Portraits and Dreams: our reviewer, David Was. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Was