geri allen

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.

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