Singer-Songwriter Karrin Allyson Headlines Rescheduled 40th Folly Jazz Series

Karrin Allyson performs at the Folly Theater Oct. 9. (Folly Theater)
Karrin Allyson performs at the Folly Theater Oct. 9. (Folly Theater)

The Nationally Recognized Artist Fondly Recalls Her Start in Kansas City Clubs

Jazz instrumentalists are known for taking a melody and running with it — and often taking the listener to places far more mesmerizing and memorable than the source material. The same may be said of vocalists.

A jazz singer can transform an innocuous pop song into a true thing of beauty — and elevate a classic from the Great American Songbook to even greater heights. Consider Billie Holiday’s richly atmospheric rendition of Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York” or Diana Krall’s evocative take on Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Through the years, the Folly Jazz Series has played host to some of the most notable singers in jazz history — artists who respect the tradition while approaching it with imagination and individuality. One such vocalist is Karrin Allyson, who brings her combo to the Folly Oct. 9.

In concert, Allyson — who also plays piano — is likely to flip through the songbook of her near-namesake, the great singer-pianist Mose Allison.

“Before COVID-19 hit, we had just done a weeklong residency at (the New York jazz club) Birdland,” she said. “It was called ‘Allyson Sings Allison.’ I love his material.” The show also included some of her own compositions, which are the focus of the 2018 album, “Some of That Sunshine.”

In a review of a 2015 performance at Birdland, “The New York Times” called Allyson “a remarkably flexible stylist who is equally comfortable with bebop, rock and swing” and “conveys the easygoing attitude of a gal on the road who likes to hang with the band and have fun.”

Longtime Kansas City jazz fans will remember Allyson from her days — and nights — of performing in local clubs. Sometimes she could be hard to hear over the din of clinking glasses, the brouhaha of conversation and the peregrinations of waitpersons between tables.

But her dedication to a song — from embraceable jazz standard, to breezy bossa nova, to dreamy French chanson — was never in doubt. And it was clear that the musicians sharing the stage with her knew how special she was.

Allyson said she recalls the Kansas City club scene fondly.

“Yeah, we had to compete a little bit with the crowd atmosphere,” she said. “But it was a social hangout, not a concert.”

Back in the 1990s I took a friend to see Allyson perform, and he was nothing less than mesmerized. With her talent, he wondered, why was she still toiling amid the clutter and clatter of such modest venues?

So it wasn’t surprising that Allyson would become a nationally recognized artist. Or that the admirer of jazz vocalists Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae would eventually move from the small pond of Kansas City to the inevitable destination for any performer who wishes to make a big splash: New York.

Allyson’s discography includes five Grammy-nominated albums, perhaps most notably “Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane” (2001), on which she interprets songs associated with the iconic jazz saxophonist. Particularly memorable is her deeply felt rendering of “Say It (Over and Over Again).”

“Some of That Sunshine” was something of a departure for Allyson, a celebrated interpreter of jazz standards who was not particularly known for her songwriting. “JazzTimes” magazine praised the album for its “13 finely crafted originals that variously suggest the spiritedness of Carole King, the perspicacity of Paul Simon, the warmth of Irving Berlin and the bite of Bob Dorough or Dave Frishberg.”

Some of the songs on “Sunshine” were co-written with Chris Caswell, with whom she also co-produced the album. Allyson said the time just seemed right to document another side of her artistry.

“I just decided to go ahead and put it out there,” she said. “I’m really enjoying performing those songs live and thinking ahead toward more of them. But I don’t plan to abandon the jazz canon — by any means — because it’s still relevant and meaningful, and always will be.”

The New Schedule for the 40th Annual Folly Jazz Series

(Folly Theater)

Sep. 17: John Pizzarelli
Singer-guitarist Pizzarelli has achieved popular success as a spirited interpreter of the Great American Songbook.

Oct. 9: Karrin Allyson

Dec. 10: David Benoit Christmas Tribute to Charlie Brown

Jan. 15, 2022: Jeff Lorber Fusion
Keyboardist Lorber brings decades of experience to his unique spin on jazz fusion. Particularly recommended for those who appreciate a funky groove.

Feb. 12, 2022: Anat Cohen Quartetinho
Adept at a range of jazz styles, hardworking clarinetist-saxophonist Cohen will front a road-tested quartet.

March 12, 2022: Paquito D’Rivera
If you’re looking for jazz with a Latin tinge, you’ll definitely want to check out saxophonist D’Rivera and his quintet.

April 16, 2022: Eliane Elias
Perhaps best known for her singing, Elias is also a superb pianist who might remind jazz aficionados of Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock.

The Folly Theater is taking multiple protective measures during the pandemic, including a mask requirement and a staggered, socially distanced seating plan for an audience limited to 200. For details, tickets and more information about the Folly Jazz Series, visit www.follytheater.org.

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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