Pianist, composer and educator Geri Allen, who has died at the age of 60, had her own sound. Just a few bars gave her away. Her close-interval chord voicings and soaring single-note lines couldn’t be anyone else.
Influenced by Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Monk, Tommy Flanagan, Bud Powell and Cecil Taylor, she explained her style to writer Howard Mandel in 1993: ‘A lot of my ideas come from stride and McCoy Tyner’s use of the left hand, but I may use rhythms from the Caribbean or Africa and/or mixed meters.’
She was born in Pontiac, Michigan, and attended Cass Tech school, also alma mater to Barry Harris and Donald Byrd. She studied music at Howard University in Washington DC where she met trumpeter Wallace Roney, her future husband and frequent collaborator. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and then attended the Jazz Development Workshop with Detroit musicians such as Marcus Belgrave, Roy Brooks, Kenny Garrett and Robert Hurst. She also found time to teach at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
Allen settled in New York, studied with Kenny Barron and found herself accompanying Lester Bowie, Wayne Shorter, Steve Coleman, Oliver Lake and Greg Osby. I first heard Allen on Shorter’s Joy Ryder album, her piano playing shining through despite jostling for space alongside Herbie and Patrice Rushen.
Allen began her illustrious solo career in the 1980s, touring and recording with two legendary bass/drums teams: Charlie Haden/Paul Motian and Ron Carter/Tony Williams. She accompanied vocalist Betty Carter alongside Dave Holland Jack DeJohnette, and in 1995 became the first pianist to perform with Ornette Coleman for 30 years in concert and on the Sound Museum albums.
She made telling contributions to Reggie Workman’s Cerebral Caverns and in 2006 was commissioned to write ‘For The Healing Of Nations’ in honour of 9/11 victims. Her solo career continued with several well-received albums for Verve, particularly The Gathering which was produced by Teo Macero and featured guitarist Vernon Reid, percussionist Mino Cinelu, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White. Her fine 2013 album Grand River Crossings was a love letter to the music of Detroit.
In the last 10 years of her life, Allen forged a particularly fruitful musical relationship with drummer/composer/arranger Terri Lyne Carrington, whose Grammy-winning Mosaic Project album featured one of Allen’s great compositions ‘Unconditional Love’. Allen and Carrington joined Esperanza Spalding to form the Wayne Shorter-inspired ACS Trio which toured to great acclaim. More recently, Allen and Carrington joined sax colossus David Murray in the mighty MCA Power Trio.
I saw Geri three times in concert, if memory serves: at the Pizza Express in a trio with Buster Williams and Lenny White, at the Barbican with saxophonist Tineke Postma and Terri Lyne Carrington, and last year with the MCA trio at Cadogan Hall. She was never less than inspired, always finding intriguing avenues of improvisation and always listening. Farewell to a modern great.
Geri Allen (12th June 1957 – 27th June 2017)