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Pianist ranks with the best

Geri Allen shows off her heart and range as she explores the spiritual and the secular.

October 20, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Geri Allen put her heart on the line Wednesday at the Jazz Bakery. Her heart, her imagination, her spirit and her capacity to enliven everything from soul-drenched spirituals to hard-edged post-bop.

Although her visibility doesn't rise to the level of a Herbie Hancock or a Chick Corea, Allen is a similarly versatile pianist-composer. And her playing throughout Wednesday's opening set was a paragon example of the complex of musical styles and issues facing jazz pianists in post-20th century jazz.

Allen's new recording, "Timeless Portraits and Dreams," embraces both the secular and the spiritual elements of jazz, and her live program took a similar tack. She began with the spiritual "Oh, Freedom," outlining the work's plaintive melody with a floating sequence of atmospheric chording.

Other pieces from the album followed in an excursion of variegated sounds and rhythms reaching from her own tender "Portraits and Dreams" to a startling arrangement of Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha," in which the rapid-fire bebop theme suddenly burst through the seams of a quiet, ballad-like opening. Allen's solo kept the flames alive in a series of Bud Powell-reminiscent choruses, powerfully driven by the fast-fingered support of bassist Kenny Davis.

The set peaked with a climactic blues -- basic and straight-ahead -- in which Allen reached deeply into the jauntily swinging, mainstream aspects of her style. Hearing it, one could only marvel at the stylistic range and improvisational depth she had brought to her hourlong set.

She did so despite the generally monochromatic drumming of Mark Johnson. Playing at a level that seemed to range from intense to super-intense, he rarely seemed to grasp the multi-planed levels of subtlety in Allen's music. The one or two times when he switched to brushes for ballad passages suggested a capability for more-layered interpretive powers, but they were too few and too far between.

Ultimately, however, it was Allen's spotlight, and she claimed it with musical wisdom and inventive depth. Approaching her 50th birthday next June, she is long overdue for the sort of recognition that accrues for the top level of jazz performers.


Geri Allen Trio

Where: Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 and 9:30 p.m., today through Sunday

Price: $25-$30

Contact: (310) 271-9039

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