Geri Allen, R.I.P.

Geri Allen, one of the great jazz pianists, died on Tuesday, of cancer, at the terribly young age of 60. She made wondrous, rousing, deeply felt music from all eras and styles, with collaborators of all stripes or solo. She could be raucous or elegant, bluesy or lyrical, sometimes all four at once.

Ornette Coleman played with only a handful of pianists through his long and adventurous career (he didn't want to be bound by chords), but in the mid-1990s, he made an album, Sound Museum with a quartet that included a piano part (for the first time in nearly 40 years), and he asked Allen to play it. Starting a decade before then, at age 30, Allen was recruited by Charlie Haden and Paul Motian to play on three of their trio albums (Segments, In the Year of the Dragon, and Etudes, as well as live recordings at the Village Vanguard and the Montreal Jazz Festival. She also led trio albums with Ron Carter and Tony Williams (Twenty-one)—and, a bit later, with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (Life of a Song). You can tell a lot about musician by the people who want to play with her. The best wanted to play with Geri Allen.

I first heard her in the mid-1980s, when she was part of a Brooklyn collective known as M-BASE, which created new fusions of jazz, urban rock, and Latin rhythms. (Other members included Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and Cassandra Wilson.) But around the same time, I also heard her perform a recital of Mary Lou Williams compositions at the Smithsonian. She was always exploring deep roots and figuring novel ways to make them new—and hers.

In 2010, she put out an album, Flying Toward the Sound, maybe her best, which she subtitled "A solo piano excursion inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyler and Herbie Hancock." As I wrote in this space at the time, "In jazz pianists' lingo, this is like Babe Ruth pointing to a spot in right-center field. And she slugs the ball out of the park." Allen performed with dancers on some of this music, and, even without the visual aide, it's easy to imagine—so limber and balletic was her touch, her sense of rhythm, her approach.

A couple years ago, she formed a "power trio" with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and tenor saxophonist David Murray—no bass player, but you hardly missed it, so powerful and dexterous was Allen's left hand. She and Ravi Coltrane also played a wonderful duet of Ornette Coleman's "Peace" at Ornette's memorial service (captured, along with a tribute concert at Prospect Park, on a terrific boxed set called Celebrating Ornette, which includes three CDs, four LPs, and two DVDs, and a lavish booklet). The most memorable time I saw her, though, was at the Blue Note in New York, playing duets with Charlie Haden, keeping up with every shift in Haden's mood—from bebop to bluegrass to romantic reverie and back again—with grace, aplomb, and zest.

This being an audiophile site, I should note that all her albums sound quite good and many are on vinyl. Seek them out.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This is terrible. Thank you for this tribute.


mghcanuck's picture

Such a loss, huge talent and so young.


Allen Fant's picture

Nice tribute- FK.
anything w/ Dave Holland and I am there!