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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Geri Allen 1957-2017


Sadly, the creative jazz community lost another landmark musician this week with the passing of pianist Geri Allen. Like Arthur Blythe, who we lost in March, Allen will probably be most remembered for her pan-stylistic contributions, as she was able to incorporate a deep respect for the history of the music into her compositions and playing while remaining resolutely forward-focused. This gave her music an adventurous yet accessible quality that endeared her to jazz fans of all stripes, whether traditional-minded or avant-gardists.

A native of Pontiac, Michigan, Allen attended Cass Tech High School in Detroit, where she first studied jazz under the guidance of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Cass Tech was over the years a breeding ground for jazz talent, including among its alumnae Kenny Burrell, Regina Carter, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Alice Coltrane, Billy Mitchell, Lucky Thompson, and Gerald Wilson, among others. Allen’s connection to Detroit jazz never waned, as she was a frequent presence at the Detroit Jazz Festival, often in the company of some of the living legends of the city’s jazz scene.

Allen’s willingness to explore musical pathways well beyond mainstream jazz shaped her myriad projects, whether working with Ornette Coleman (on both of his Sound Museum records, from 1996) or re-imagining Motown pop songs (on Grand River Crossings, from 2013). It is a testament to Allen’s spirit of generosity and self-effacement that she was often viewed as strongest on the records in which she was not a leader: classic examples would be Etudes (with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, from 1987), Frank Lowe’s Decision in Paradise (from 1985), and Steve Coleman’s Motherland Pulse (also from 1985). Her under-appreciated trio release with Terri Lyne Carrington and David Murray, Perfection (from 2016) was a striking reminder that Allen remained an utterly dynamic, creative force even to the very end. She will be missed.

- Troy Dostert