With fourteen acclaimed albums and four Grammy nominations over her nearly 25-year career, Karrin Allyson could simply coast through a recording session and release a respectable album. But what makes us eagerly anticipate every new release from Allyson is her consistently inventive selection of repertoire, arrangements and collaborators, as well as the confidence that, regardless of that material, we’ll hear something new, something assembled with the utmost respect for both the music and her audience. Number fifteen meets our expectations and then some.
Many a New Day: Karrin Allyson Sings Rodgers and Hammerstein brings Karrin to the Motéma label and into the studio with piano legend Kenny Barron and highly regarded bassist John Patitucci. And while Richard Rodgers is well represented in the vocal jazz canon, most collections feature his partnership with Lorenzo Hart; Oscar Hammerstein has been relatively neglected, and after hearing this new collection, one has to wonder why, given the popularity of such Broadway and film hits as Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I, Sound of Music, Carousel and more.
In addition to playing “Nellie Forbush” in a high school production of South Pacific, Karrin Allyson had long felt “powerfully drawn to the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein…gorgeous melodies, near perfect lyrics, music that begs to be sung. Their music is filled with innocence, optimism, a confident can-do response to any problem, an appealing wise-guy humor, a sense that we all belong together on this wonderful planet.” After seeing an American Masters program on PBS about Hammerstein, Karrin notes that “it hit me what a decent human being he was and how he was able to communicate issues of justice in his lyrics, and romance, of course.” And naturally she was also drawn to Rodgers’ “amazing melodies.”
The R&H partnership seemed the perfect starting point for a new album. Similarly, the pared-down backing of piano and bass, and particularly Kenny Barron and John Patiticucci, offered the perfect musical vehicle. “I sought Kenny out first,” notes Karrin, “as I’ve always wanted to work with him, and John was on my Ballads (Remembering John Coltrane) record. He added such beautiful stuff. I knew he’d be great on this, too, and the pairing of the two seemed just right.” Many a New Day marks only the second time Barron and Patitucci have recorded together.
Rather than address the broad swath of Rogers and Hammerstein tunes, Karrin chose to limit the setlist to witty, romantic and swinging interpretations of songs from four of the greatest Broadway shows– The King and I, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and Oklahoma!, thus including songs that are far less represented in the recorded canon of R&H (e.g., “When I Think of Tom/Hello Young Lovers,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “Something Wonderful”), as well as a few to which Karrin just could not say no–“Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and “Bali Ha’i.”
Singing with just a duo, Karrin allows the listener to focus more intently on her voice, the lyrics and the nuances of her own arrangements, while the stunning instrumental backing from Barron and Patitucci adds impact throughout and particularly elevates the most commonly heard of these tunes. Generally the piano and bass provide support but don’t generally outline the melody–rather, Karrin carries the melody as the lead instrument of the trio. In addition to writing the arrangements, Karrin also designed the flow of the album with often-clever sequencing —
we go from a “Oh What Beautiful Morning” to a “Many a New Day”; from “I Have Dreamed” to “Out of My Dreams.”
Karrin draws on Oklahoma for the first two tracks, opening with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” Barron gives the song a sparse, bell-like intro as Karrin sweetly renders the opening verse as Patitucci enters with a similarly clock-ticking bassline. But there’s a surprise coming as Karrin moves into a rhythm suggesting Crescent City meets Rio. Oh, what a beautiful arrangement. The title track carries a lilting swing, with Barron and Patitucci inserting a simply gorgeous duo break. If Rodgers and Hammerstein were one of the 20th centuries great musical pairings, then Barron and Patitucci are surely among the consummate duos of the early 21st.
One of two tracks from South Pacific, “Happy Talk” starts with Karrin scatting the verse, Patitucci driving with a high-energy scampering behind voice and piano. Barron maintains a minimalist foundation, just giving Karrin the bare outline of chords, yet bursting to life on the duo interlude. It’s a happy song. Perhaps less happy than expected, “I Can’t Say No” (Oklahoma) is given a unique feel–minor tones and a slower pace alter the tune from its usual full-out sassiness to a more wistful mood, Patitucci’s deep bass notes adding to a feeling of longing, even a touch of regret. “I Have Dreamed” (King and I) is a shining track for piano and bass that would readily stand on its own without a vocal, but Karrin’s voice adds a beautiful, more blatant wistfulness. “Out of My Dreams (Oklahoma) provides some subtle tropical sway, Karrin holding the melody against her cohorts improvised backing; Patitucci takes a romping solo.
The three following tracks emphasize the romantic storylines prevalent in the R&H musicials. “Bali Ha’i” (South Pacific) opens with bass solo, a bit dark and mysterious as fitting the song’s exotic setting. Giving the less familiar verse its due (“When I Think of Tom”), Karrin and her cohorts offer a master class in modern swing as they move into “Hello Young Lovers” (King and I). And it’s truly a musical collaboration, Barron and Patitucci don’s guide Allyson through the melody but create a context for her vocal storytelling. Also from The King and I, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “Something Wonderful” are lovely ballads with exquisitely rendered vocal and instrumental passages; these songs deserve more representation in the repertoire of both vocalists and pianists.
Arguable the album’s cultural high point is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific. These lyrics perhaps are even more critical today than when written. There’s a touch of swampy voodoo in the arrangement with Patitucci’s bass particularly sinister–as is the song’s target (racial prejudice). Recent events in Paris and Minneapolis make the biting sarcasm even more important, if painful, to hear. It’s a lesson we need to carefully learn.
The album returns to its upbeat beginning with “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top”– how can Karrin make this old workhouse from Oklahoma fresh? By modulating up the scale from the first verse! She climbs in sync with Barron, then breaks into a jaunty scat as if the horn in a trio. Continuing her scat into next verse– we all know the lyrics anyway–she hands of to Barron and Patitucci for a joyful ride, returning to the modulating pattern for the final verse, the band almost breathless as they roll to the finish.
Two tunes from The Sound of Music close out the set. “Something Good” finds just Karrin and Patitucci on the first verse before Barron joins in, the bass continuing to dominate through a solid solo — the result is truly “something good.” And Karrin goes it alone, accompanying herself on piano for a sparsely ornamented reading of “Edelweiss,” a loving, quiet hymn to one’s roots.
There are a lot of well-respected voices among jazz women these days, and many who excel at inventive interpretation. But there are few who are truly outstanding as complete musicians. Karrin Allyson excels not only as vocalist but also as arranger, collaborator, bandleader, and, often, her own accompanist. Many a New Day gloriously brings these talents together. And it’s “Something Wonderful.”
Update 2/15: Many a New Day is nominated for a 2016 Grammy in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category.