Released in 2011
JazzTimes Top 10 Classic Jazz Christmas Albums
DownBeat 4½-Stars Review
For many people, Christmastime is all of these things at once: happy and sad, simple, yet complex, heartwarming, and sometimes even heart-rending. Perhaps that is why this Christmas musical offering by Geri Allen, A Child Is Born, resonates so deeply. In this recording, Ms. Allen has managed to capture the wonder and mystery, innocence, beauty, and hope of the Christmas season. The repertoire here is diverse: including several traditional carol melodies, a work from the jazz core repertory, as well as a few original compositions. What unifies this eclectic mix is Ms. Allen’s unmistakable musical personality. Her ability to swing in any setting and her gift at finding new spaces in wellknown musical environments is exceptional. In Ms. Allen’s capable hands, the familiar becomes something new, fresh, and immediate. The unfamiliar becomes an invitation – replete with risk, adventure, and joy. Those familiar with Ms. Allen’s work will recognize the sense of quest and odyssey here. This musical project draws on many influences and traditions. From the ancient modal melodies of the early Western church, to the “Gena” melodies of Ethiopia, to the voices of the women of the Quilt Collective of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, this work is truly an expression of world music. It reminds one of the sounds of the human spirit across borders of geography, time, and faith traditions. Ms. Allen’s synthesis of these different cultural traditions is both convincing and compelling. The remarkable and distinctive cover art by Kabuya Pamela Bowens is a striking complement to the music presented here. This contemporary depiction of the Black Madonna and Child is also a reference to the distant past, mirroring the equally ancient character of many of the centuries-old melodies here. Although this recording clearly speaks for itself, it is always difficult for a preacher not to want to “signify” just a bit…
Angels We Have Heard on High juxtaposes the traditional melody against an Allenesque ostinato in the left hand. It swings and offers a fascinating contrapuntal essay reminiscent of a Bach Invention. Allen is a master of the groove and the evidence is powerfully demonstrated here. Ms. Allen recalls Marian McPartland suggesting that A Child Is Born ought to be a part of the canon of the Christmas repertoire. This piece is dedicated to Hank Jones and the Jones family and was inspired by a Hank Jones performance of the same composition. Geri performed this piece for him on the occasion of his 89th birthday celebration in New York. Certainly, the title as well as the tune are at the heart of her album. Her exploration finds new nooks and crannies to mine. Geri Allen is heir to a profound legacy of great pianists from her hometown of Detroit including Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Alice Coltrane, Sir Roland Hanna, Barry Harris, Claude Black, Harold McKinney, Kenny Cox, Terri Pollard, Kirk Lightsey, and Bess Bonier. This recording draws on Christmas traditions from around the world. Imagining Gena at Sunrise (and Sunset) is based on a Gena melody from Ethiopia. The Gena is a unique aspect of a traditional Ethiopian Christmas celebration and involves the game of “Gena.” Legend has it that the game was being played by the shepherds who were tending their flocks on the night that Jesus was born. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel was originally a plainsong, a traditional ritual melody of the Western Christian Church. This beautiful melody is combined here with the voices of the Quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The empathy between the two traditions is powerful. There are musical commonalities, such as the pentatonic formations, as well as unmetered rhythmic flow shared by both the church chant traditions and African American religious folksongs. The sound of the women singing is a faith testimony all by itself. The pairing here intensifies and deepens our appreciation of both music traditions. Journey to Bethlehem is an original composition that actually speaks of two journeys: the journey of the Magi in the nativity story, as well as Geri’s own 2006 journey to Bethlehem with her friend Ora Harris. Like the Magi some two thousand years before, Geri’s was a journey of awe and wonder, humility and great expectation. We Three Kings of Orient Are is perhaps the most expansive of the musical meditations in this collection. The beauty of the melody comes from its architecture. The dark, melodic line begins with a melancholy and haunting descent that is balanced at the end of each verse with an upward sweep. The aspiration and insistence of the ascent seems to suggest the tenacity and trust of the Magi in their search for the Christ child. Allen captures these qualities in her improvisation. It is remarkably organic with each idea growing out of the preceding one. The texture thickens and becomes more intense as each moment elides into the next. The ebb and flow of the journey continues until the final note brings the piano and celeste together in a simple single unison. The 4/4 interlude is “classic” Geri Allen. This is the musical voice we have come to know, love, and admire. There is a wonderful musical mystery here. The subtle chromatic relationships in the ostinato, interior voicings, and the melody are like pieces of hidden treasure. They promise to reveal something new with each listening. The familiar meaning of the word “orient” has to do with countries of Asia. But there is a second, more obscure, yet relevant meaning. “Orient” refers to the special luster of a pearl of finest quality. When the celeste presents the tune, its sound shimmers like an heirloom ornament on the family Christmas tree—one that’s been passed down from one generation to another. The ornament is fragile and worn, but it glistens with the luster of a pearl of the finest quality!
STAR OF WONDER, STAR OF NIGHT
STAR WITH ROYAL BEAUTY BRITH
WESTWARD LEADING, STILL
PROCEEDING GUIDE US TO THY PERFECT LIGHT
In Little Drummer Boy, Geri’s piano literally becomes the drum: insistent, percussive, determined to have an offering to give the newborn King. Like the poignant question in the lyric, “Shall I play for you?” Geri responds with an affirmative “Yes,” and then plays and plays and plays. GOD Is With Us is the second piece of original music offered here. The text is drawn from Matthew 1:23. Its climax proclaims: “For with God, nothing shall be impossible. Hallelujah!” It is entirely appropriate to include Amazing Grace in this collection. Although not a Christmas song per se, the Christ child is understood by Christians as God’s greatest manifestation of love and grace. Geri’s harmonization and rubato treatment gives new dimension to this beloved hymn tune of the Christian faith and reminds us all that the child that is born to us is the living manifestation of God’s amazing grace! The Christmas Medley is a decidedly pure read of three timeless melodies of the Christmas season. The communion hymn Let Us Break Bread Together is also not a Christmas song, but it is decidedly at home here because this album is much more than a Christmas record. Breaking bread is one of those basic human values that all religious/spiritual communities seem to share. Like a Passover Seder or Sunday dinner, gathering with the family and friends is essential to affirming community. In the Christian tradition, it is a reference to the last supper. This piece is dedicated to Dr. Billy Taylor and the Taylor family. It begins with an intro from Allen’s “Open Handed Reach,” which Ms. Allen composed for Dr. Taylor and had the honor of playing for him during the Mary Lou Williams Festival in Washington. In It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Geri’s highly personal harmonic and rhythmic language is immediately apparent. Opening up the piece through her improvisation, here she is a musical griot weaving a magical tale of what happens in the clear of midnight. Indeed, “the world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.”
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel returns and concludes this musical meditation, as if a lovely bidding prayer: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.” A part of the timelessness of Christmas is that it represents a profound expression of hope and peace in a world fractured by suffering. The Christ child was born into such a world as this, a world bruised and wounded by war, violence, and indifference. Isaiah 9:6 declares: “For unto us a child is born . . . and he is named Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace.” Like all great art, this Christmas recording invites you to return to it again and again. Like a good book or Holy Scripture itself, each encounter reveals something new and often surprising. We know the Christmas story, yet we look forward to hearing it told to us again and again. Scripture also says that all who would enter the kingdom of God must enter it as a child. Enjoy A Child Is Born!
Reverend Dwight D. Andrews (Professor of Music at Emory University, and Pastor of First Congregational Church, UCC Of Atlanta)
1. Angels We Have Heard On High (Christmas Traditional / Traditional) 04:24
2. A Child Is Born (Thaddeus Jones) 03:43
3. Imagining Gena At Sunrise (Ethiopian Traditional / Traditional) 01:10
4. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (I) (Christmas Traditional / Traditional) 07:31
5. Journey To Bethlehem (Geri Allen) 01:12
6. We Three Kings (John Henry Hopkins, Jr.) 05:08
7. Little Drummer Boy (Katherine K. Davis) 05:00
8. God Is With Us (Geri Allen) 02:16
9. Amazing Grace (John Newton / Traditional) 02:43
10. Christmas Medley (Various Composers / Franz Gruber / Christmas Traditional) 04:32
11. Imagining Gena At Sunset (Ethiopian Traditional / Traditional) 00:32
12. Let Us Break Bread Together (Lawrence Collingwood / Traditional) 05:00
13. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (Richard Storrs Willis) 06:24
14. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (II) (Christmas Traditional / Traditional) 00:56
Geri Allen: piano
Guests vocalists: Connaitre Miller, Carolyn Brewer and Barbara Roney
Spoken Word: Farah Jasmine Griffin, Ph.D.
Recorded January 14-15, 2011 at Union Country Performing Arts Center, Rahway, NJ, and on April 27-28, 2011 at Klavierhaus, NYC.
Produced by Kunle Mwanga and Geri Allen
Mixed and Mastered by Duke Markos
Executive Producer: Jana Herzen
Cover Art: Kabuya Pamela Bowens
Geri Allen’s emotional attachment to a dozen hymns and Ethiopian Christmas melodies is absolute on A Child Is Born. Allen uses her questing musical intelligence and technique to express gratitude for a loving family and redeeming Messiah. Her music, including samples of the singing quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is suffused with grace.
Frank-John Hadley (DownBeat)