As a teenager, Karrin Allyson listened to all the usual suspects: Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Carole King, Aretha Franklin. She sang folk music and joined an all-female rock band called Tomboy.
Then she heard Nancy Wilson.
"When I finally discovered jazz it seemed to encompass all that I was really interested in doing," says Allyson. "The improvisation spoke to me --- the possibilities for interpretation, the soul within it. And the challenge. It's always a challenge."
Had she gone the rock route, even if she'd been lucky enough to achieve success, her career probably wouldn't have lasted long in the fickle pop market.
Jazz is different. A singer may never reach the heights of fame, but a career can be sustained and nurtured over a lifetime. Last year, Allyson put out the best album of her career --- Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane --- and garnered two Grammy nominations. It's only a matter of time before she takes a Grammy home.
It's been a long road. Twenty years of singing and, until last year, doubling as her own manager. But it's finally paying off. Her latest album, In Blue, peaked at number one on Jazz Week's jazz chart and remains in the top 20 almost four months later.
Allyson, who plays Thursday, November 21, at Montage Grill, has been all over the map. She studied classical piano at the University of Nebraska at Omaha before moving to Kansas City and becoming a staple of the jazz scene.
Her first album, recorded independently in Kansas City, was strong enough to attract the attention of Concord Records. The label signed her and put the disc out nationally. Eight albums later, Allyson is still with the label, a rarity in any genre. She appreciates the fact that all of her CDs are still available. "They're my creative babies." She also likes the freedom. "I'll discuss albums with [the label], but it's pretty good about letting me use my own judgment."
Her last three releases have been concept albums. In 1999, Allyson released From Paris to Rio, a collection of French and Portuguese tunes that few singers could pull off.
"My mother had played me Edith Piaf albums and my minor in college was French. I always loved that music. When I got to Kansas City I started a real French band, Karrin Allyson and the French Connection. We played at French restaurants. Then Brazilian music started creeping into my jazz gigs through my guitarist Danny Embrey, who played with Sergio Mendes. People kept asking 'When are you going to do a French album? When are you going to do a Brazilian album?'"
Anyone who listens to jazz radio could not have escaped "O Pato," a catchy Brazilian tune that's still requested at every performance.
But Allyson's most praised album came next. Ballads is a reinterpretation of Coltrane's 1962 Ballads album.
"I love that recording. One night I was listening to it and I thought about how cool it might be to sing it in that order because I'd gotten so used to that sequence. I didn't think the tunes had been overdone vocally; you don't often hear 'Say it (Over And Over Again).'"
The result is a gorgeous collection of tunes including a haunting vocalese performance of Coltrane's "Naima."
"People had written lyrics, but they just didn't seem to fit what my idea of it was. So, when I sat down at the piano, I thought, how can I add something to this song that has been done a million times? I just came up with that ostinato, almost a Latin groove, underneath it. And I ended up doing it vocalese --- I wanted to be another horn player."
Allyson doesn't echo Coltrane's melodies, but his presence can be felt on every track.
"Nobody was getting up there and trying to sound like Trane; it was basically in the spirit," she says. "I've learned a lot about singing ballads through doing that project and listening to him play --- the intensity of it and the different levels of playing ballads. It's not just about romance and sentimentality; it's deeper than that."
True to form, her latest album, In Blue, is not the usual blues album. Some of the tunes --- the standard "Angel Eyes" and Joni Mitchell's "Blue Hotel Room" --- do not even involve blues progressions.
"It wasn't meant to be for me to get up there and shout the blues for an hour. I wanted to have something a little different. It's more about having the blues. It's a jazz album, not a blues album. But there's a lot of blues in there. If you're a decent player of any kind the blues creeps in."
Karrin Allyson plays on Thursday, November 21, at the Montage Grille, 50 Chestnut Plaza, at 8 p.m. Tix: $16 in advance, $18 day of show. 232-8380.