Carrington-Coltrane-Spalding: Celebrating Geri Allen

PDXJazz concert summons the generous spirit of the late pianist

by PATRICK McCULLEY

The February 22 PDX Jazz Festival concert at Portland’s Newmark Theatre was originally intended to showcase the music of the ACS Trio. But because of the untimely death of pianist Geri Allen (the “A” in ACS, Allen-Carrington-Spalding) the previous summer, the concert turned from showcase to musical memorial. The result was a worthy celebration of the life and music of an inspiring human being.

The night opened quietly and subtly with improvisations on jazz standards and popular songs by Portland pianist Darrell Grant, who collaborated with Allen during a performance at Reed College in 2009. Before playing, Grant took time to praise Allen’s bold voice, openness, and encouragement of “finding my own voice” in his playing. Before each song, Grant gently read lyrics to songs he was about to play, to provide the audience with a verbal connection to an otherwise instrumental medium, and then turned to the piano and began. The first song, Duke Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose,” set a nostalgic and beautiful tone for much of the rest of Grant’s set. Particularly poignant was his improvisation on James Taylor’s (by way of John Denver) “Fire and Rain” with particular stress on the melody of “but I always thought I’d see you again.”

Pianist, professor and composer Darrell Grant.

There was something particularly enchanting about Darrell Grant’s playing that night. His improvisations, even during their wilder moments, seemed to have a hypnotically calming effect on the audience. Perhaps too calming, because it was at about this point in the set I could hear an audience member close to me snoring. The only thing surprising about that was how long it took for his friends to wake him up.

Audience etiquette, guys. It goes a long way.

The highlight of the set was an original composition, “The Compass,” that Grant said reminded him of the way Allen’s music “danced.” Opening with a deep, grooving, insatiable bass line played in the left hand, and a bluesy, spiritual accompaniment in the right, as the song continued, the bassline became a frame for an increasingly complex spiral of colorful, and chromatic improvisations that built and intensified until the melody’s eventual return.

When the trio of Ravi Coltrane (soprano and tenor saxophones), Terri Lyne Carrington (drums), and Esperanza Spalding (bass), began their set it was without grief, without a sense of mourning or hesitation, but with celebration. Their first song was rhythmically complex and fast, with a playful and punchy melody sung by soprano sax. The saxophone melody transitioned to a solo and afterwards an energetic interplay of bass and drums, and then a spitfire drum solo.

The group switched stylistic gears easily for the next tune, as Spalding demonstrated by whistling eerily while she and Carrington played ambiently, softly on drums and bass. Coltrane joined them, rhapsodizing on his tenor sax, the ensemble weaving in and out of various tempos and grooves. And once again the trio found themselves playing with much the same energy and complexity as the first song, continuing into an exchange of solos, underpinned by Carrington’s electrifying mastery of her drumset.

Their set continued with a richly melodic and gospel-like exchange among the trio that quickly became a conversation between drums and bass. A fiery saxophone solo brought us back to an improvisation on the beginning’s spiritual melody and into a groove reminiscent of Elvin Jones‘s work on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

Ravi coltrane, Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding performed at PDXJazz Festival. Photo: Mark Sheldon.

The set continued with similar exchanges among the trio, with twists and turns in groove and energy, surprises in every song. Maybe the most surprising thing was the audience’s reaction. Not only was it a packed house, but their response to every piece was enthusiastic as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large crowd in Portland receive what amounted to free jazz with such open-minded joy, something I would have never expected, considering that support for local musicians playing similar music is less than enthusiastic.

Geri Allen. Photo: Pablo Secca.

On the other hand, the way the ensemble played that night was beyond even what you might expect from three master jazz musicians. Every one of Coltrane’s sax solos was powerful, Spalding’s bass playing subtle and agile, but driving it all home and filling the music with life was Carrington’s percussion. While Spalding (a multiple Grammy winning Portland native with numerous accolades and barely into her thirties) is maybe the most famous of the three, and Coltrane boasts the name, instrument and (judging by his skilled work here) the work ethic of his famous father, it was Carrington who really stood out. Her drumming was not only masterful but also organic, unfolding with a sense of purpose rarely heard from even the best musicians. Carrington seemed to encompass a community of grooves and often soloed as if she were trying to fit the entire human history of rhythm into one set. The other two musicians responded as if she was their leader.

After a funky, grooving tune that began with Spalding singing the refrain “this one is for Geri” then broke into solos, the set ended with a song based on a lyrical excerpt from the title track of Geri Allen’s album Timeless Portraits and Dreams. As the band played, Spalding encouraged the audience to sing the lyrics, which embrace the notion that the need for water connects, nourishes, and and cleanses all humanity. “Water purify, and make a bridge, and transport us to a new tomorrow,” we sang, all celebrating Allen in that moment. And even when the singing stopped and the rest of the song continued, we felt connected to the performers on stage in a way we hadn’t been before.

The result was beautiful. Not only was the ensemble celebrating the music that Geri Allen created, but also exemplifying the message of the music, connecting everyone there and transcending the idea of audience and performer. Far too often I’ve attended jazz concerts where it feels as if the audience is subordinate to the performer and ultimately unimportant to the gathering at all. Here, even as listeners, you felt as if you too were in the thick of the music, part of the celebration. I hope somewhere Geri Allen’s spirit was pleased.

Patrick McCulley is an Oregon-born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.

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