Music News & Reviews

Jazz singer Karrin Allyson expands her sound during an uplifting homecoming

Karrin Allyson performs with her quintet Friday at the Folly Theater in downtown Kansas City.
Karrin Allyson performs with her quintet Friday at the Folly Theater in downtown Kansas City. The Kansas City Star

Near the beginning of her concert at the Folly Theater on Friday, Karrin Allyson explained that she crafted a set list that was calculated "to make us feel good."

Often moving with the carefree exuberance of someone in the middle of a crowded dance floor, Allyson clearly had a delightful time. Only the strictest jazz purists in the audience of almost 600 could have failed to have been similarly uplifted.

For two hours, not including a 20-minute intermission, Allyson and her sterling accompanists performing a dazzlingly eclectic mix of material that included only a small dollop of mainstream jazz.

Born in Great Bend, Kan., in 1963, Allyson once honed her craft at the Phoenix, the tavern a few blocks to the north of the Folly Theater. The vocalist, pianist, songwriter and bandleader ascended to international stardom in the 1990s. Based in New York for over 15 years, Allyson's career has been characterized by the sort of artistic restlessness she displayed Friday.

Allyson's band featured four longtime favorites of Kansas City jazz fans — guitarist Rod Fleeman, bassists Bob Bowman and Gerald Spaits and drummer Todd Strait — along with Chris Caswell on Hammond B-3 organ. While all of the musicians found opportunities to showcase their formidable jazz chops, much of the evening was dedicated to Allyson's recent collaborations with Caswell on sophisticated pop material that resembled the work of James Taylor and the late Laura Nyro.

Allyson's voice, an instrument as complex and intoxicating as a fine wine, is capable of making even lesser selections seem like masterpieces. She imbued an interpretation of "Winter Wonderland" with a sultry undercurrent that transformed the tired seasonal tune into a scandalous flirtation.

Her long-standing affinity for the music of Brazil allowed the band to stretch out during a graceful romp through the cascading melodies of "Double Rainbow." Other highlights included Fleeman's sassy instrumental retorts to Allyson's vocals and the marvelously novel introduction bassists Bowman and Spaits gave to "Nature Boy." Bowman's profoundly resonant solo during a captivatingly mystical reading of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" compensated for the shortage of jazz selections.

Allyson recalled that when jazz stars would listen to her play at the Phoenix after appearing at the Folly Theater, she dreamed about eventually performing on the stage of the concert hall. After Friday's lustrous concert, many of Allyson's fans may already be fantasizing about her return to the historic venue.

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