Something Else! sneak peek: Geri Allen, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” (2013)

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Lots of notable jazz pianists have been making solo piano records lately, and Geri Allen joins the fray Tuesday when she releases her own such album. But hers is notable on that she is tackling not jazz standards or originals for her material; she made a Detroit-themed set of recordings, mostly mining Motown, for this one called Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations.

Wait a minute…actually, this is Allen’s third go around in a row with a solo piano excursion, following the Taylor/Tyner/Hancock inspired Flying Toward The Sound (2010) and the Christmas collection A Child Is Born (2011). In the usual fashion for Allen, she undertakes a subject matter that she could probably coast along on the strength of the material alone and instead makes it into a complex vehicle for her artistry. She cheats a little bit on the format, as trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and alto saxophonist David McMurray join her separately for a handful of cuts, but they take nothing away from her and her ability to carry the melodic load on her own.

Grand River Crossings starts off the same way Michael Jackson’s Thriller does, with “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” In doing so armed with nothing but 88 keys, I’m reminded of when Vijay Iyer covered a hit from that same blockbuster, “Human Nature” and showed that when you remove the bright socks, the one glove and that blessed voice, there remained something to hang your fedora on, and that’s the song itself.

Allen’s pick is a bigger challenge as “Somethin'” is a sweaty dance floor number, not something that lends itself to jazz so readily. However, Quincy Jones had layered this song splendidly, with rhythmically bound harmonic streams using synths, horns and percussion that tightly work together like a well-oiled syncopation machine. Jackson’s vocal serves as yet another such thread.

With just two hands, Allen weaves them all together, and even goes outside Jones’ and Jackson’s structure to improvise and then flips the major into a minor right before fadeout. Wait, don’t leave us so soon!

Fortunately, Allen has more nifty tricks up her sleeve that keep Grand River Crossings engaging and fun.

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Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations is all set for North American release on September 10, by Motema Music.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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