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 Thursday, 26 November 2015
The Sweet Intimacy of the Blues – Karrin Allyson’s “Round Midnight” (2011, Concord Jazz) PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Sunday, 01 May 2011

'Round Midnight

“What I’m most interested in doing on this record – and on all my records – is reaching people and communicating with them. That’s the thing that inspires me more than anything else.”

–Karrin Allyson 

‘Round Midnight is not Karrin Allyson’s first album of the sad and bittersweet. Her 2001 homage to John Coltrane, Balllads, often went into dark corners and wistful musings, areas where the four-time Grammy nominee so skillfully inhabits a lyric.  A decade later, with her own piano and keyboards throughout the 11 tracks, backed by guitarist Rod Fleeman, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Matt Wilson, and along with Bob Sheppard on supporting woodwinds and guest harmonicist Randy Weinstein, Allyson’s own liner note sets the stage for another round of sophisticated balladry:  “Imagine yourself, in the city, walking late at night. It’s ‘Round Midnight.’ The wind is cold, but you hear some warm sounds and you follow your ear down into a small, dark club. There’s a woman at the piano singing these intimate ballads – one after the other. Maybe you’ve just recently suffered a heartache, or maybe the lyrics, melodies and harmonies evoke feelings you have somewhere deep down inside.”

Touching that universal human vulnerability is what Allyson strives for—successfully, elegantly--as she unfolds each tale, drawing on great songs from jazz giants (Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk), Songbook standards (Landesman and Wolf, Johnny Mandel), film and show tunes (Charlie Chaplin, Carroll and McCarthy, Stephen Sondheim) and pop (Paul Simon, Gordon Jenkins, Anthony Newly). “They’re heartbreak songs,” says Allyson, “and one cathartic way to get over heartbreak is to sing about it, or listen to someone else sing about it. Embracing the difficult emotions is part of the healing process.” The voice of Karrin Allyson, particularly on ‘Round Midnight, should be on every psychiatrist’s prescription pad.

Karrin Allyson©Andrea Canter
Allyson starts her set with one of Bill Evans’s most beautiful songs, “Turn Out the Stars,” her delicate piano and dusky voice melding gracefully with Gene Lee’s lyrics, while Bob Sheppard’s tenor sax and Matt Wilson’s soft surging add wistful soul. Many of us coming of age to the soundtrack of Simon and Garfunkel fondly remember Simon’s “April Come She Will,” which Allyson takes slower, thoughtfully, anchored by Ed Howard’s deliberate pulse and Rod Fleeman’s sweet acoustic guitar. Gordon Jenkins’s “Goodbye” holds special meaning for Allyson, who recalls an instrumental version (“one of the most moving live versions I’ve heard”), played for her and husband Bill by Fleeman and bassist Bob Bowman when they moved to New York. Appropriately, guitar and bass turn in a stunning duet; Sheppard’s bass clarinet and Wilson’s resonant toms fill dark spaces; Allyson’s “goodbye” fills the air with the regret of leaving home.

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” was written by Harry Carroll and Joseph McCarthy for the 1918 musical, Oh Look, but Karrin notes that the melody comes from 19th century Chopin. Sheppard’s soprano sax solo is one of the instrumental highlights of the album, while Allyson’s ethereal vocal gives each word a place of honor in the storyline. Noting that the long form and complex lyric pose challenges on Fran Landesman/Tommy Wolf’s “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” Allyson sought a more swinging arrangement, and the result is a divinely dark intersection of the bitter and the wary.

Karrin’s piano intro to “Smile” only hints at the contradictions to follow, dissonant harmonies in the keyboard arrangement and resignation of the voice playing against the empty promise of the lyric; Randy Weinstein’s harmonica adds another layer of pathos. “Sophisticated Ladies” is a slow “disillusioned” dance, Weinstein again enhancing Allyson’s pensive interpretation while Howard’s basslines give the track its burnt-amber glow. Karrin cites inspiration from Carmen McRae’s live recording of Anthony Newly’s “There’s No Such Thing as Love”; here the simple piano/voice arrangement is a plaintive reading, as exquisite as melancholy can be.

“The Shadow of Your Smile” is rendered as a slow samba, supported elegantly by Fleeman’s guitar and Sheppard’s alto flute. Fleeman’s arrangement of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” adds some rhythmic and harmonic twists that serve to highlight Karrin’s reverence for the lyric and the underlying emotion. Monk’s iconic title track closes the set, a dark blue duet of voice and bass; the pairing perfectly concedes the tragedy of failed romance, Howard’s solo standing firm on its own.

‘Round Midnight indeed brings the listener into that “small dark club” where a lone singer recounts lost loves and missed opportunities, poking at our moments of dark regret, but with a romantic heart. She sings to us as if no one else is in the room. When we leave the club, the darkness is gone. It’s morning.  

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