Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

November/December 2009: John Pizzarelli and Aaron Weinstein

Karrin Allyson:
Improvisation is the Key

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Karrin Allyson began her musical journey learning classical piano, first from her mother then later earning her degree as a classical piano major. Moving through several genres, she found jazz to be the right vehicle for her artistic voice. Born in Kansas City, now based in New York City, this three-time GRAMMY nominated artist will be on stage in Winnipeg in late October as part of the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances series. I caught up with her by phone.

You said, “Music is a positive way to spread love and creative thought.” Is this your personal credo?

Basically, yes! The process of creating music, or even just thinking about it, I think somehow spreads good energy. For me, this goes for any creative thing really—planting a garden, painting, taking a long walk, helping someone, cooking something good, being with family or friends…

You perform everywhere, from clubs to Carnegie Hall, from Australia to Asia. Do you suffer from burn-out sometimes?

Definitely. It’s important for me to remember that my players are depending on me, and the audience too. Once I get on that stage I’m there for them, all of them. My players really get me focused, and once the show starts everything feel much clearer.

And between shows? What renews your inspiration?

Nature. Movies. Books. I like to work out when I can. But rest is the best cure. I always make sure the band and I have eaten properly too, that’s important. I create quiet time before a show. If I can, I take a 20 minute nap. I take time to focus.

With such a busy schedule how do you manage a regular practice routine?

I wish! Life’s too unpredictable for a regular routine so I practice when I can. (I was about to practice when you called!)

There are so many approaches to this music people call jazz. What is jazz to you?

Improvisation is the key. The rhythm section needs to have room to move and evolve within a song. Many forget that and use machines or pre-sets. As a singer, phrasing is important. Pop phrasing is something different that the phrasing found in jazz. Jazz is not about the type of song—it ain’t what you got, it’s how you use it! Jazz needs to breathe.

Who are your musical influences?

Joni Mitchell, James Taylor—those great singer-songwriters came first. I love Latin and funk music. I discovered Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae later.

How do you choose a tune to add to your repertoire?

It depends on the project. Sometimes the melody or poetry of the song speaks to me and sometimes it’s about the theme of a record that draws me to choose a particular composition. As long as it’s something you love to play.

Liza Minnelli speaks about breaking down each song into the character traits of the woman she imagines singing it. What do you think about that?

It’s a good idea. This music is confessional—like the great blues singers telling you what’s going on for them in a deep and usually painful way. Telling the story in an intimate kind of way is important.

You gotta be brave up there and honest.

Exactly. Tell the story and reach out. Communicate with your audience. It doesn’t always happen but you want to reach out…

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