In service of the song

With a skillful, sultry, honeyed voice which makes jazz lovers compare her to Ella Fitzgerald and Shirley Horn, Karrin Allyson burst out of the Midwest with her first album into the international jazz scene. The WNC Jazz Society 2010 Series continues this month with this three-time Grammy-nominated performer heralded by New York Times as "a complete artist — one of the jazz world's finest."

Xpress: From your birth in Kansas, what led you to jazz?
Allyson: I grew up in Nebraska. Kansas City and Omaha have a lot going on with great traveling players who have moved back there where they have a home. Kansas City had Pat Methany, and there are many great musicians in the Midwest.

I was a classical piano major at University of Nebraska, and always loved to sing. I would buy sheet music of Joni Mitchell, Carol King and other singer/songwriters of the '60s and '70s playing on the radio when I was a teen. When I discovered jazz in college through my classmates, I realized that was the style I really wanted to sing.

Who are some of your favorite jazz artists and influences?
Nancy Wilson, Carmen MacRae, Sheila Jordan, Lena Horn, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Even someone like Betty Carter, she was more adventuresome, took a lot of chances and used her voice more than some instrumentalists. I love the blues a lot, but it's all over the map. We try to approach every style with authenticity and retell them in our own way. Going to hear live jazz is so important when you want to do this for a living, because the live aspect is so different from the recording. It's all about improvisation, and responding to the musicians you're working with. It's not a set thing every night, and that's what makes it really challenging and fun.

What first motivated you to make a recording?
I was playing in clubs working five to six nights a week with good musicians. I wanted to be able to sell something on the band stand and document where we were at that time. It was really kind of a practical tool, to have to sell and give to others for more gigs. Recording is fun because you can take the time to get it right. It's an excellent learning experience.

How did you get from that first record to Grammy-nominated albums?
The first CD was picked up by a label. A woman bought it in Kansas City and got it air play on California's KJAZZ. I then started to get calls for CDs. The host was the West coast promoter for Concord Records. He ended up signing us up for for three CDs on Concord, and since then we've resigned for each set. You have to have a lot of self-motivation. I have conquered 12 CDs since then, which was not easy, but gratifying for me.

Which albums were nominated for Grammys?
The first nomination was in 2001 with Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane, and then in 2006 with Footprints. The most recent recorded album Imagina: Songs of Brasil in 2008 was our third nomination of all-Brazilian music. Brazil's Antonio-Carlos Jobim had a hit with Stan Getz, and became a very important part of America's songbook. He's a prolific Brazilian songwriter. When you listen, the language is so beautifully melodic and interesting. A tool that singers have, which musicians don't, is the language.

Do you tour with the band you record with?
Logistics are always challenging trying to make this work with budgets and schedules. I've been really lucky with band mates. It varies a little, but I have to have a few common elements. In Asheville, I'll have my longtime guitarist Rod Fleeman, who's still based in Kansas City, drummer Eric Montzka from Chicago, and bassist Ed Howard from New York. I'll be playing piano and singing.

Do you set the arrangements?
Many are mine, but we collaborate. I'm a musician who sings. It's not just me sitting on a stool singing. It's a democratic thing. I play more piano now. I became a jazz singer before I became a jazz pianist.

What will you do for the master class Sharon LaMotte organized?
A dozen students will sing and play for me, and we'll deal with feedback from student to student. It's really fun to hear what they're doing, find out about where they are, and help them get where they want to be.

What is the most common advice you give singers?
Lower the key. It's meant to be funny, but it's true. It's a journey within yourself to open up in front of people. I feel like we have to be in service of the song, not in service of ourselves up there. 

What do you hope people will take away from your concert?
I really want people to feel better when they leave than when they came. We all lead busy lives, but we need to be fed by art and music.

[Reach Wendi Loomis at]

who: Karrin Allyson
what: Quartet performance, part of the WNC Jazz Society's series
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Sunday, April 25 (7 p.m. $25/$35/$10 students. 257-4530, more at Pre-show reception from Frankie Bones at 6:15 p.m.)

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