Karrin Allyson has the chops to sing just about anything from any genre. Over the course of her career, the Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and pianist has earned praise for both her expressive approach to the standards and her highly rhythmic style.
These days, Allyson performs soulful ballads, swingin' pop tunes, bossa novas, and clever reworkings of pop and folk-rock faves, but no matter the genre, she locks in with her rhythm section, particularly the percussionists.
"I think it's important for jazz singers to be jazz musicians, and not just have a jazz band and sing in a pop style over them," she says. "You can't rely on your band having it with you sailing over the top."
Her keen rhythmic sensibility helps set her apart from other contemporary jazz singers.
"That is something that was always there, but it's something that certainly developed," Allyson says. "I am a pianist, and the piano is really a percussion instrument, so time is everything to me. I'd rather hear players sing and play with great time than to be very virtuosic. I do center on the time and the rhythm a lot."
On her new studio album, 'Round Midnight — released this month on the Concord Jazz label — Allyson demonstrates a fantastic range through an eclectic 11-song set. A dreamy, romantic tone runs through the entire collection.
"I feel like my style has a lot to do with trying to be beautiful while staying simple, but it's hard to stay simple," says Allyson. "Breaking it on down in a useful way and trying to be as direct and heartfelt as possible is the main idea."
She and the band touch on just about everything from Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to Stephen Sondheim and Paul Simon.
"'Round Midnight took shape through my recent live performances," Allyson says. "I've been playing more piano at the live gigs, so I'm playing all of the piano parts on this album. I did most of the arrangements. So it came from what I've been deciding to do on the road. This new album is more of a late-night listening set. That's the way I would describe it."
Born in Great Bend, Kan., and raised in Omaha, Neb., Allyson grew up in a musical family. She started playing piano at age five. As a young teen, she initially dove into the singer-songwriters and folk-rockers of the 1970s, listening to artists like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and James Taylor.
"Early on, I learned that you can't really depend on what you think you already know," she says. "Things are changing all the time, you know? You can be very confident, and that's important. But practicing is essential, and so is experiencing life. When I started out, I went out all the time, listening to music and absorbing it like a sponge. You have to hang out and get the life in your bones. That's the way it is."
Allyson played piano and sang in rock and funk bands during high school and college. Her taste for jazz slowly developed during her college years at the University of Nebraska.
"I didn't start out singing jazz. I started out singing folk music, singer-songwriter stuff, and even a little bit of rock 'n' roll," Allyson says. "I was into a lot of different styles. I think a lot of that shows in our discography."
She became a regular at a Kansas City nightclub before signing to Concord for the 1992 release of her debut album, I Didn't Know About You. Shortly after, she relocated to New York City.
"I was definitely on my way [as a jazz musician] before I moved to New York," she says. "I was playing a lot, heavily influenced by Kansas City jazz and the players there. I was into Midwest music and international music in general, which is a big part of our approach. I was well formed, but that doesn't mean that I haven't developed any more."
It's always a challenge for jazz singers to come up with something original when rendering old classics. Allyson and her band put serious heart into the standards on 'Round Midnight, recreating some of them with new rhythms, harmonies, and accents.
"Part of the beauty of this art form is that you can take something you've heard done a million different ways and make it your own," she says. "Yes, it is a challenge. And it's hard to describe how it happens, but I know that I use the piano as a tool for it. My players are good about going along with me, too. And I collaborate a lot on new arrangements. But, no matter the situation, you're always striving."
Allyson's current backing band is a quartet comprised of her longtime partner, guitarist Rod Fleeman, along with bassist Ed Howard and drummer Billy Drummond. At the Cistern, Allyson's set will certainly feature many of the songs on her album along with earlier works, a few choice Coltrane tunes, some Brazilian standards, and a passionate ballad or two.
"I like to open it up a bit," she says. "Having two nights in Charleston is nice. We'll be able to cover more material. We don't do the same set show on any given night. We'll be reaching way back into the whole thing, so we could go all night."