There is nothing quite like the piano, especially with jazz. It almost feels like a band without a pianist or keyboard player is missing something. For whatever reason, when I listen, I can always pick up the piano. On Tuesday, the world lost someone who was amazing at that, and I was beside myself.
Geri Allen died yesterday, apparently from cancer. She was 60, way too young. I had no idea she was gravely ill, then I saw a friend share that she had passed on Facebook, which stunned me.
I knew of Allen for a long time before I ever heard her music or saw her perform live. I was fortunate to see two live shows that she did, with the first being a show I’ll never forget for a bigger reason – though she stood out there, too. She was part of the Beantown Jazz Fest in 2007, with a special concert at Boston Symphony Orchestra that had a star-studded lineup. There were legends, like Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Cobb and Roy Haynes, as well as some we will speak of as living legends one day like Branford Marsalis, and even a rising young star named Esperanza Spalding. (In fact, I remember the emcee for the night noting how we saw the present and future of jazz that evening with the aforementioned legends playing alongside Esperanza.) There were big names I didn’t know as much about, like Joe Lovano and Kenny Werner.
But through all of it, I remember Geri Allen.
I remember the first time I listened to one of John Coltrane’s CDs. It was a compilation called The Gentle Side of John Coltrane. As the CD went on, I remember thinking that the piano work was wonderful, as I was picking that up at least as eagerly as Coltrane’s saxaphone. It figures, since the pianist was McCoy Tyner, another living legend who to me is the best ever on the piano and who I have been fortunate to see perform. Even when the pianist is not the leader – I am a big fan of many, from Keiko Matsui to Bob James to Bobby Lyle – I often pick up the piano in listening to music.
All night long that night, I heard Geri Allen.
I remember that night as an amazing night. But as much as anything, I remember how through all the greats that were on that stage, I thought Geri Allen was amazing on the piano all night long. I thought of how I knew her name and remembered seeing her CD The Life of a Song in a Jazziz magazine (and had a small recollection of her being on the cover once), and now had to go find out more about her. I had become a big fan overnight.
Before long, I picked up Timeless Portraits and Dreams, and a few years later, I picked up Flying Toward the Sound not long after it came out. Both are sensational; ironically, the former was the most recent CD in my car rotation on the day she passed, so I had just listened to it (I don’t often listen to CDs in the car these days, opting for podcasts much of the time instead). The latter is as good as you can get – the entire CD is solo piano, just Geri taking you on a wonderful trip. To date, they are sadly the only CDs of hers I have, but that will hopefully change. I tried to obtain The Life of a Song to no avail; it seems very hard to come by, at least by relatively conventional means.
Some time later, I saw a show where she and Patrice Rushen – another who has never received the acclaim she deserves – performed together, at one point even switching up roles. I was a lucky aficionado.
As I write this, I have been enjoying via Spotify the last CD she was a part of, Perfection, which was recorded with Terri Lynne Carrington and David Murray. Murray is the only one of the three I was not previously familiar with, having seen Carrington a few times. It is enjoyable, and is on my list of CDs to buy.
There is so much more to Geri Allen than just what I have experienced with her performances and enjoyed of her music. She did so much to educate and mentor young jazz musicians, which leaves me hopeful that there will be more great ones following in her footsteps.
But there will not be another Geri Allen. Her passing leaves us a little poorer than we were beforehand. And I still remember that night in 2007 – the night I became a big fan. The night I remember her more than any of the legends whose names probably come to mind faster. And the night that as much as any showed that there is nothing quite like the piano – especially when there’s someone like her making beautiful music with it.