By Rob Lester, Broadway World
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare had Juliet query. Sometimes a name is shared by people unrelated by blood or marriage, but they coincidentally seem to share a connective perspective. It has happily happened again. The captivatingly cozily cool Karrin Allyson, whose two nightly shows at Birdland continue at Birdland through Saturday, has a last name pronounced the same as that of the late musician Mose Allison, despite the variation of one letter, but “I” say: “Y” be picky? It’s a lucky happenstance and maybe in some way a partially irresistible motivation for her to sing a batch of his clever songs. In any case, a show that’s a mostly Allyson Sings Allison affair to remember makes for a catchy concept bringing welcome current attention to a wry, sly guy whose writing and recorded performances have long and appreciatively been on my radar. I was tickled to hear the material in a live setting by an accomplished jazz artist and her ace band. Actually, she’s been picking up his material a bit at a time for quite a while and now she’s diving in even more. With the work of Mose, that which we call a rose might have some competition in order to smell as sweet as this flowering match made in musical Heaven —assuming there’s a sense of humor in Heaven. Karrin is a great muse for Mose. His wit and satirical edge sound interestingly freshened sung by a modern female voice who is clearly in sync with the way he used to think.
For those not previously hip to the hip songs, a full-length immersion could mean a too-quickly-required acquired taste for the tidal waves of tangy lyrics. And too many similarly conversational, low-key pieces written for Mr. Allison’s own modest voice would hardly test the full range of Miss Allyson’s prodigious vocal abilities. So, in the interest of pleasing fans (which she sure seemed to do), the program was balanced with non-Mose musical fare.
The alluring Allyson experiences the music with her whole body. She was moving and grooving, swaying and sashaying as the band was playing, clapping her hands, slapping her thighs, inviting the audience into the comfort zone she also shares with the band. Also note her skillful scat-singing excursions, extending her envelopment in the music; they were not self-indulgent or overdone. But don’t worry a bit about the wit and wisdom of the lyrics getting lost in the shuffle! The smile-inducing and sharp words were delivered with zing and punch, like a singing motivational speaker, the smiles preventing any ballsy, bluesy-based thing from being misinterpreted as preachy, a pity party. or caustically mean-spirited. Instead, “‘Your Mind Is on Vacation’ (but your mouth is working overtime” comes off as worthy wordplay. The bait-and-switch surprises still work wonders: for excellent example, the rationale to declare a carefree “I Don’t Worry About a Thing” —because things are assuredly going to get…. [wait for it]… worse. Similarly, there’s the refreshing honesty of “I’m not downhearted…but I’m ‘Gettin’ There'” is a knowing dip into bemused, resigned pessimism. Social commentary sings/stings anew as true and relevant in our trying political times. Food for thought, delivered with a wink and a shrug of the shoulders works its delicious magic.
Speaking of shoulders, the name of the artist’s outstanding new CD, which has a lot of big-name guests, is “Shoulder to Shoulder: Centennial Tribute to Women’s Suffrage.” It was great to hear in a live setting the modern jazz setting of one of its historic resistance songs (“I’ll Be No Submissive Wife”). A few strong, accessible, and diverse Allyson originals were included in the night’s set: one potent one from this CD and two from her previous CD, “Some of That Sunshine”‘s title track and the vulnerable ballad called “As Long As I Know You Love Me.”( I’ve previously witnessed these scoring with another Birdland audience and the more standards-leaning crowd at the Cabaret Convention.)
With their “wow factor” abilities aptly showcased and acknowledged, the band was dynamic throughout: guitarist Rod Fleeman, drummer Jerome Jennings, bassist Marty Jaffe, and pianist Milo Sprague (who occasionally sat out to let the multi-talented Allyson take to the keyboard). Once again It was a treat to again see Karrin Allyson perform. She sounded great and she looked great in a white shirt, black tie, and sleekly tailored suit. And all kinds of songs seem to suit the swinger in the suit.
P.S.: Later, I began to wonder what could happen if other singers recently booked by Birdland were contractually required to do shows taking on the songbooks of other same-surnamed stars. Would we get “Nicolas King Sings Carole King,” “Veronica Swift Sings Taylor Swift,” “Billy Stritch Sings Elaine Stritch,” “Jim Caruso Sings Enrico Caruso,” and “Linda Lavin Sings Christine Lavin” (or vice-versa?).