Vocalist Karrin Allyson may be one of "youngsters" in a group of four talented women jazz vocalists that make up the Concord Jazz on Tour quarter coming to McCarter, Saturday, February 12 - but it's not like she hasn't been around the block. Allyson, who has recorded nine albums for the California-based jazz label, Concord Records, will perform with two jazz veterans - Oleta Adams and Diane Schuur (who Allyson first heard with the Basie band while still in college) - as well as a relative "newcomer" like herself - Sara Gazarek.
Allyson spent many years carefully honing her craft in Minneapolis and Kansas City nightclubs before finally making her big move five years ago to New York City, the jazz capital of the world. "From my own personal perspective," she says in a phone call from her sister's house in Hawaii, "I'm glad I didn't move to New York any sooner than I did. I didn't move there with any expectations that big things would happen once I got there. I wanted to be in the city for a lot of different reasons."
Although Allyson points out that she has been "an up-and-coming" jazz vocalist for 12 years now, she notes there is still lots to learn from working with veteran singers like Schuur and Adams. In particular, she says, they all have a wonderful sense of humor and share it freely with their audiences while on stage.
"Sara Gazarek is younger than all of us, but I play musical hostess for the evening. We all play piano, and I do a tune or two and tell the audience what they are about to hear. Much of the show uses us in combinations on stage together," Allyson says, adding that the concert is "a varied musical event from blues to ballads to jazz standards. Each of us is very different in our choice of material."
What are some of these differences? Allyson says Schuur, who is blind, has an incredible vocal range, while Oleta Adams, who grew up mainly in Kansas City, reveals her roots in gospel and spiritual tunes. Seattle-raised Gazarek, the baby in the bunch at 23 years old, began singing traditional jazz in high school and was awarded the first ever Ella Fitzgerald Outstanding Vocalist Award in New York City in 2000. Her debut CD for the Concord Jazz label will be released this summer.
Allyson, 42, grew up in the 1960s in Omaha, Nebraska, and Oakland, California, between the two households of her divorced parents - her father was a Lutheran pastor and her mother was a dean at Mills College in Oakland.
She was first exposed to jazz in college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she was a piano performance major. "Classmates got me turned on to jazz when they handed me a Carmen McRae cassette," she says. "I remember listening to Diane Shuur sing with the Basie band and wanting to do those arrangements. You hook into arrangements with certain singers." Although she was a classical piano major she says she did her own "folkie singer-songwriter kind of stuff," after music that was popular on the radio in Omaha when she was growing up.
Allyson says she had connection in New York even before moving there. "I had residencies in some clubs in New York while I was still living in Kansas City," she says, referring to her then more frequent shows in venues like the Blue Note, Iridium, and Birdland. She calls New York home but says, "I'm on the road 75 percent of my life, anyway."
Allyson begins week-long engagements at the Blue Note in New York on West 3rd Street at the end of March and at LeJazz Au Bar on East 58th Street in November. Her nine albums for Concord Records include an album of big band-styled and roadhouse blues, "In Blue," as well as genre-bending experiments that include bebop, Brazilian, and French jazz tunes. She earned a Grammy Award nomination for her album "Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane." Allyson may also be familiar to fans from her many performances through the years on Garrison Keilor's "A Prairie Home Companion" program.
Her current album, "Wild For You," includes now-classic pop tunes, done in a distinctive, decidedly jazzy vein. For example: Elton John's "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," Cat Stevens' "Wild World," Joni Mitchell's "All I Want," and Ewan McColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," a tune popularized by Roberta Flack in the 1970s.
At the McCarter concert, Allyson, Schuur, Adams, and Gazarek will be accompanied by Laura Caviani on piano, Rod Freeman on guitar, Todd Strait on drums, and Scott Steed on bass. Adams will be accompanied by her husband, drummer John Cushon, during her set.
Adams' current release is "All The Love," for Concord Records, her first pop album in five years. Her debut album, "Circle of One," was released in 1990, and the single from the platinum-selling release "Get Here" became an unofficial anthem of the 1991 Gulf War. Adams, the only African-American on the tour, has toured with Tears for Fears, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton, and Luther Vandross, among others. The daughter of a minister in Yakima, Washington, it's not
surprising that Adams got started singing in the church.
Schuur, who has recorded with everyone from B.B. King to the Basie Orchestra, has won several Grammy Awards for her albums through the years for a variety of record labels. She is known for her bubbly personality on and off stage and throws lots of funny stories into her live shows.
Allyson says: "Humor is a big part of what we do, and I always hope for some humor, because it's what keeps this business do-able. Diane can be very funny, but so can Oleta, but in a different way."
She says the tours have mostly been about enjoying each other's music. "We are each very formed and established in our own ways, and have respect for one another. Having said that, I can't help but learn from those I respect. There's a certain collegiality on stage, but we also have a fair degree of organization. We have concentrated a lot on the pacing and layout of the show, but it is, after all a jazz program, not a cabaret program, so there is a certain element of spontaneity involved."
What can audience members, both those familiar and those unfamiliar with jazz, expect from this show? "I'd hope people would already know something about 'the names' on this tour like Diane Schuur and Oleta Adams, but if you don't know much about jazz, you can expect an eclectic evening of music making, lots of funny and engaging stories, and some really good singing," Allyson says.
"For me, singing is about connecting to people with this music, and making a difference in people's lives. All of the singers on this tour do have messages to relate. Come out and you'll hear what we have to say."
Concord Jazz on Tour, Saturday, February 12, 7:30 p.m., McCarter Theater, Princeton. 609-258-2787. Also, Sunday, February 13, 7 p.m., Community Theater, Morristown. 973-539-8008.