The Life of a Song (Telarc)

Geri Allen

Released August 24, 2004

JazzTimes Top 10 Albums of 2004




“The Life of a Song is a profoundly personal album, a labor of love, and an appreciation of guiding lights that have paved the way for the radiant musical maturation of Geri Allen.”—Dan Ouellette, from the liner notes

One of the jazz highlights of the year has arrived. Geri Allen’s new release, The Life of a Song, is the acclaimed pianist/composer’s first new release in six years. Adventurous yet accessible, the eleven tracks on Allen’s Telarc debut reach back to her Detroit upbringing and are a celebration of the past, present and future.

Produced by Geri Allen and Elaine Martone at Avatar Studios in New York City in January 2004, The Life of a Song is primarily a trio date featuring one of the best rhythm sections in jazz, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette (along with Allen, they supported vocalist Betty Carter on her 1993 album Feed the Fire). “It was such a wonderful feeling to work with them again,” Allen says. “I’m very grateful for their participation on this project.”

The Life of a Song spotlights eight imaginative new compositions that explore themes of family, motherhood and spirituality. “LBW’s House (The Remix)” was originally titled “Laila’s House.” Allen explains, “Laila, our oldest daughter, is now joined by our son Wally and Barbara, our youngest, hence the re-mix.” “Mounts and Mountains” was inspired by Geri’s father, Mount Vernell Allen, Jr., and brother Mount Vernell Allen, III. The title track was inspired by Herbie Hancock’s brilliant writing and playing, and Allen says she was just “waiting for the right opportunity to record it.” “Holdin’ Court” is a remembrance of Betty Carter.

“In Appreciation: a Celebration Song” is Allen’s joyous tribute to Rosa Parks, who lives in Detroit. The Motor City also figures prominently in two other Allen originals: “The Experiment Movement,” a tribute to dancer/choreographer Jacquelyn Hillsman, and “Black Bottom,” which pays homage to the Black community where jazz lived. “I wanted to honor the memory of Black Bottom because it’s not there anymore,” says Allen. “There is a Black Bottom in every city.”

The Life of a Song also includes three standards: Billy Strayhorn’s masterpiece “Lush Life,” Bud Powell’s whimsical “Dance of the Infidels” and Mal Waldron’s rapturous ballad “Soul Eyes” (with flugelhornist Marcus Belgrave, saxophonist Dwight Andrews and trombonist Clifton Anderson).

“These compositions are timeless classics, and I wanted to challenge myself.” Allen says. “All three men pushed the music forward, and I’m in awe of the contributions they made. I was so influenced by Strayhorn’s writing—it’s almost theatrical and so advanced harmonically. ‘The amazing’ Bud Powell was an innovator who mesmerized everyone, and all jazz pianists follow in his footsteps. ‘Soul Eyes’ is a personal tribute to Mal Waldron. I’m honored to have had a chance to work with him.”

Allen has consistently demonstrated a bold, authoritative approach that receives much deserved critical acclaim. After graduating with a degree in jazz studies from Howard University in Washington, DC, she attended the University of Pittsburgh where she earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology.

In addition to teaching as an Assistant Professor of Music at Howard, Allen has amassed a stunning resume of musical collaborations. Her colleagues have included modern greats Charles Lloyd (with whom she’s been touring for two years), Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Mary Wilson and The Supremes, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian and Betty Carter. Allen’s excellent musicianship was internationally recognized in 1996 when she was the first woman to win the coveted Danish Jazzpar prize. In 1998, Verve released Allen’s acclaimed CD, The Gathering, with trumpeter (and husband) Wallace Roney. In 2003, Allen co-scored an HBO documentary, Beah Richards, A Black Woman Speaks. “A dear friend once told me that ‘the life of a song’ is a music industry phrase,” says Allen. “But that’s not what I meant. In my mind, we play this music over and over again, and it does live.”

Track Listing:

1. LWB’s House (The Remix) (Geri Allen) 5:55

2. Mounts and Mountains (Geri Allen) 8:08

3. Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) 8:15

4. In Appreciation: A Celebration Song (Geri Allen) 6:13

5. The Experimental Movement (Geri Allen) 7:12

6. Holdin’ Court (Geri Allen) 4:40

7. Dance of the Infidels (Bud Powell) 4:04

8. Unconditional Love (Geri Allen) 5:19

9. The Life of a Song (Geri Allen) 5:24

10. Black Bottom (Geri Allen) 4:33

11. Soul Eyes (Mal Waldron) 5:40


Geri Allen: piano

Dave Holland: bass

Jack Dejohnette: drums

Marcus Belgrave: flugelhorn

Dwight Andrews: saxophone

Clifton Anderson: trombone

Recorded January 16-17, 2004, at Avatar Studios, Studio C, New York, NY

Produced by Geri Allen and Elaine Martone


Pianist Geri Allen’s first release in six years nicely spotlights her compositional excellence and mature playing. While she’s consistently been a dynamic, gifted soloist on past releases, Allen’s playing on The Life of a Song seems more relaxed and fluid, yet it remains rangy and expressive. Rather than just zipping through progressions or spewing out rapid-fire notes, Allen sometimes presents delicate, fleeting lines and light, soothing refrains. Then on other occasions like the opening passages of “LBW’s House” or “In Appreciation” she’ll shift into an aggressive Afro-Latin mode or deliver sharp, gospel-influenced phrases that are rhythmically daring. Her solos mix elements of hard bop and blues along with occasional nods to funk (“Black Bottom”) and swing (“The Life of a Song’).
But this CD is far more a collaborative effort than the usual trio date, which should be expected when your partners are bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Holland’s booming solos and often-stunning accompaniment are augmented by DeJohnette’s nimble drumming and expertly varied patterns and textures. And the session’s engineer, Michael Bishop, should be commended: Every maneuver by Hol-land and DeJohnette can be clearly heard and admired. On such songs as “Mounts and Mountains” or “Unconditional Love,” Holland and DeJohnette’s backgrounds are nearly as compelling as the song’s main melody. Other times, especially during the opening moments of “Lush Life” and her solos on “Soul Eyes” and the title track, Allen’s excellence in establishing a composition’s mood and developing the piece to its fruition is spectacular. Still, it is clear on all 11 selections here that listeners are hearing a cohesive unit, with each member easily able to shift from a spotlight to a complementary role.
Although Geri Allen’s versions of standards are marvelously performed, it is her originals that distinguish The Life of a Song. She’s writing fresh, distinctive songs that are made even better when performed by a master trio.

Ron Wynn (JazzTimes)