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Tribute to 'Trane finds own groove

Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane
Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane
By Karrin Allyson

Concord Records: 2001

This review first appeared in the November 25, 2001 edition of the American Reporter.

There are tributes, and then there are tributes. But tackling an album by one of the giants of jazz, track for track? That takes some gumption, because you're inviting direction comparisons.

When the object of your homage is the late saxophonist John Coltrane, you had better be on top of your game. For Coltrane is lionized not as a popularizer of jazz – a la Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington – but as a musician's musician. 'Trane, as his fans still refer to him, is in the same hallowed pantheon as Miles Davis and Charlie "Bird" Parker – someone who combined stellar technical virtuosity with a unique soulfulness to help redefine the very essence of jazz.

And yet, here is singer Karrin Allyson recording an album in which she, in order, records every song from Coltrane's "Ballads" album (plus an additional three songs at the end that Coltrane also recorded).

Even though he (obviously) recorded all of them, not that all the tunes found here are necessarily associated primarily with Coltrane. "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)" will forever be a Sinatra song, as is (for most folks) "All or Nothing at All."

But part of Allyson's point here (as she writes in her own introduction to the release) is to vocally tackle these tunes the same way 'Trane did with his saxophones.

How successful is she? Well, in re-creating Coltrane's "sound," Allyson probably comes up short. The thing is, so splendid are her versions of these songs that you're unlikely to be thinking, "Hey, that doesn't sound like 'Trane."

No, you're more likely to be thinking, "Whoa! Why haven't I heard of her before?"

Deeply introspective, as Coltrane's playing could be, Allyson's singing is so heartfelt, so mesmerizing, that this release could never serve as background music. It reaches out from the stereo and demands your attention. Supple and exquisite, her voice is among the most expressive in jazz – today or any day.

And getting to read liner notes by Nat Hentoff is a special treat. During the late '50s and throughout the '60s, Hentoff was one of the best, most knowledgeable writers on jazz. In the '70s and '80s, he decided to focus his passion and energy on writing about social issues, and wrote little about music. But he never stopped following the music, and nobody can write about jazz with more authority or insight.