Jazz Great Karrin Alysson Talks with Secrets

It’s the special qualities of Karrin Alysson’s instantly recognizable, slightly hoarse vocalism that set her apart. Her careful attention to words, the phrases molded with an intelligence that declares her total involvement, the impeccable pianism that illuminates a good share of her performances, and her overarching desire to tell a story all unite to pull listeners into the heart of her songs. Whether she’s singing about poet Robert Frost or a lover’s embrace, the warmth, depth, and honesty of Alysson’s artistry catapults her into the same august company as three of her jazz idols, Carmen McCrae, Nancy Wilson, and Dinah Washington.


On May 29, 2008, less than a month before she was slated to perform twice in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had a lovely chat with Karrin about three different upcoming gigs: her June 25th shows at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, her June 29th appearance at the Filoli Festival in Woodside, California, and an August appearance at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Hearing Alysson  at Yoshi’s only confirmed the impression left by her impressive Concord Jazz discography: She is a profound artist who taps into a deep well of emotional truth.

Below is the transcript of our phone conversation. (Photo by Randee St. Nicholas.)


Karrin Alysson: Oh. You’re recording. So I have to behave myself. Okay. Alright.

Jason Victor Serinus: It’s not going to be broadcast. Besides, darling, I don’t behave myself at all.

KA: I got that message right away. [We both laugh].

JVS: Years ago, my friend David Tonelli brought over your 1996 album Collage with the song about Robert Frost. He loved the song, and thought it was such a natural recording that it would make a perfect test of my audiophile set-up. That’s how I got to know your voice.

Recently, David loaned me Footprints, the Concord Jazz CD you issued in 2006. I just love it. There are lots of albums with enjoyable melodies, catchy lyrics, and fine singing. But, as you well know, you have the ability to bring people deeper into a song than most.

When you plan a concert, what are your goals?

KA: I think planning a concert set is similar to planning the repertoire on a CD, although it’s live, so you have the opportunity to get feedback from the audience and get a sense of what’s reaching them and what may not be reaching them not so well. I definitely plan sets differently for each show. I do them differently from gig to gig. Also, if it’s in a club setting like the Iron Horse in Northampton, it will be different than the hour I was given at the Hague Jazz Festival just a bit ago. In clubs, you have longer to stretch out and lean back a little bit.

My big goal is always to be relaxed and communicate with the audience. I try not to chop chop rush through things no matter how I’m feeling, but that’s a challenge.

JVS: Do you sometimes change gears during a performance? Who is backing you up at the Iron Horse?

KA: My guitarist Rod Fleeman and drummer Todd Strait. I’ve known these two gentlemen for about 18 years, since my Kansas City Days. They both play on Collage, and Todd is on Footprints and the new CD, Imagina, as is Rod. My bassist is Ed Howard. And I’ll be playing piano and singing.

I will have written out a guideline for the first set, but it can always change. We have these things called “audibles,” when we switch. They try to be as ready as they can. We have a very, very large repertoire. We call my book Das Buch because it’s this big, heavy thing. It’s hard to get through all the stuff all the time.

JVS: When you write out a set, do you plan any kind of journey you wish to take people on?

KA: That’s a good question. I do have a journey, but I’m not exactly sure where it takes us until we’re almost in the middle of it. It’s a craft to plan a set. It sometimes works better than others.

For example, in a place like the Iron Horse, I should do “Robert Frost,” for example, because that’s Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson territory.

JVS: You know, although I went to Amherst College, I live in Oakland, CA…

KA: That’s what I was thinking. At first I thought, oh shit, I’ve got the interviewer wrong…

JVS: I know, it confuses a lot of people that I live in California but write for publications back East.

KA: In fact, while I still live in NYC, I just bought a beautiful place in the Pioneer Valley. I’ve played the Iron Horse a couple of times before, but that was before I knew this place. So I have a very different outlook on the area now, because I’m going to be spending more time there. Who knows, when I get older, maybe I’ll be there forever.

It’s a very beautiful area. I just visited the Emily Dickinson house last week. My place is 13 acres, and it’s in a conservation area. I’m a nature girl, so I really the solitude of it.

Actually, I lived in Oakland too. I went to Holy Names High School…

JVS:…which is where my niece goes to school.

KA: You’re kidding me. It’s my alma mater. I’m from Omaha, Nebraska. After my parents divorced, my mom, who is a very progressive woman – both my parents are, really – moved to California and became the Dean of Women’s Studies at Mills College. I wanted to be with her, but I moved out late in the school year.

First I went to Berkeley High. It scared the poop out of me. Here I was, this little girl from Omaha, Nebraska. They gave me the tour and stuff, and said, ‘Don’t get your locker down here because you’re going to get mugged,’ and my mom said, ‘Okay, we’re outa here.’

I had never been to private school before, but I thought it was pretty good decision. Initially it scared me, because I thought, oh skirts, and no boys, and stuff like that. But I really excelled there. It was really good for me.

We’re going to be at Yoshi’s in San Francisco on Wednesday, June 25.

JVS: Fabulous. I’ve got to come.

So here you are building a set. What are all the different things you take into account?

KA: I take into consideration all the instrumentation of the band behind me, what I play piano on and what I don’t, etc. I plan to play piano for about half of the show; I like to stand up and not play for the rest. The geographical location of where I am is important, such as the connection with the Robert Frost song, because people can relate to them.

It’s different when I’m in Europe. When I played in France – I do speak French, and I have French as well as Brazilian repertoire – I discovered that a lot of the time, they don’t want you to sing stuff in their language. They want to hear your stuff. I guess it’s because they have enough of their own repertoire.

I remember, once when I was in France, sound checking on a song we do, “Under Paris Skies” (Sous les ciels du Paris). It’s on our CD From Paris to Rio. The promoter ran up to the stage and said, “No, no, no. Please do not play this. This is like doing ‘Take me out to the ballgame.'” Then he heard us do a little more and said, “That’s fine. You can do whatever you want.”

So sometimes, language has something to do with it. And it’s always important for me to do some blues in aset, because I love the blues, and I think 99.9% of us can relate to the blues. Sometimes it also depends on my vocal condition, and if I’m tired from singing 20 nights in a row.

JVS: You are on the road a lot. Do you have a relationship?

KA: I do. He sometimes comes with me.

JVS: Great. A lot of your songs are about love. I whistle lots of songs about love, but I was single for most of my life, which can add a lot ofpoignancy I think.

When you first started, did you have the same mastery of lyrics that makes someone want to listen to the words and get what you’re singing about on so many different levels?

KA: I don’t know if I did. My mom was a musician. She’s the one who started my two sisters and me out on piano. I also come from a family of ministers – my father and my mom’s dad were both ministers – and she used to conduct the children’s choir. She said she could always count on me to open my mouth and sing, even though I was first a pianist.

Piano was my major in college. I never thought I was going to be a singer. But in Oakland, I started getting involved in theater. I was the lead in two plays at Holy Names. So I guess I’ve always had a love for the dramatic part of music.

Story telling is what I’m interested in. When I was in high school in the mid ‘70s, I discovered singer-songwriters like Carole King, Carley Simon, Janis Ian, Roberta Flack, Melissa Manchester, and Joni Mitchell. I fell in love with these songs that told stories. I’d buy sheet music to these tunes, and my piano teacher at the time, who followed my mom, encouraged improvisation. It wasn’t like we were Bud Powell or anything like that, but we’d take little songs and do chord changes and try and improvise over it instead of just sight-reading, because I was never really good at sight-reading even though I was a piano performance major and got a scholarship for classical piano. That in fact was the direction I thought I would go.

But when I discovered singing and would sing for my friends or my family, I remember a friend saying, “You know, you should listen to yourself. You really have something there.” A little encouragement goes a long way for those who like performing, so that’s when I started to do more of it.

Then I got this little gig. I got a degree in classical piano at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and tried for a couple of little restaurant gigs playing and singing. I sat there for five hours playing and singing, and really had to come up with a lot of material to keep myself and other people interested. And that’s how that moved to the other side, as it were.

By the way, my sweetie is Bill McLoughlin. He had the show St. Paul Sunday on PBS. Now he does Exploring Music With Bill McLoughlin every day of the week on the WFMT network out of Chicago. A lot of places carry it, and you get it online. That keeps classical music still in my life.

JVS: And how did you go from 5-hour restaurant gigs to Concord Jazz to becoming one of the premiere jazz vocalists of our age?

KA: [laughing] Did you talk with my mother?

JVS: Darling, I am your mother.

KA: Well, it was a very slow process. I feel like I’m still in the process, and I probably always will be.

I fell in love with jazz while I was in college doing these little restaurant gigs on the side. I was in an all-girls rock ‘n roll band and all kinds of bands – wedding bands to make some money on the weekends, and again doing solo gigs as well. When I discovered jazz, thegreat songs and the improvisational qualities really spoke to me. For example, Nancy Wilson was one of my first vocal jazz loves. When she sang ” Guess Who I Saw Today?” – are you familiar with it? – it’s this story [singing] “You’re so late getting home from the office…” It’s about someone having an affair. “Didyou miss your train? Perhaps you were caught in the rain. [Singing again] No, don’t bother to explain.” It’s this great vignette about someone discovering she’s being cheated on. You’ve got to get that song, Jason. Get Nancy Wilson’s version of it.

I also loved Dinah Washington. And Carmen McCrae just knocks me out with her honesty and intelligence – it’s the way she tells a story – it’s not all about her voice. I really appreciate that, because I get so tired of singers who are so in love with their own voices. I want to hear the story! I want them to get out of the way!

I started my own little jazz combo in college. Then I learned tune after tune after tune. I would go out and hear as many people as I could. I’d sit in wherever they’d let me. I lived the life of that. I never really went to school for jazz. I’m a trained musician, butnot in jazz. So it’s mostly in the ear and on the job training.

JVS: Who heard you that led to what that led to Concord Records?

KA: After I graduated from Omaha, I moved to Minneapolis for three years. I got involved in the jazz scene there, and learned a lot more. Then I moved to Kansas City where I met Rod and Todd and recorded my first CD in 1990 when I was 27. I borrowed money to do it. I didn’t even know what a label was.

Then another Bay Area connection happened. A woman who has since become a friend was traveling, came to a gig, bought a CD, fell in love with our music, and said she’d try to get me some airplay in the San Francisco area. I said, ‘Thanks. Great. See you later.’ So she did. She got a hold of Stan Dunn, who was one of the premiere DJs at KJAZ-FM in San Francisco, as well as a radio promoter for Concord Records. Hestarted to play my CD a lot in the morning while people were stuck in traffic, and I started to get calls because I had put the studio’s number on the CD.[laughs].

When I called Stan to thank him for playing it, he said he wanted to introduce me to Carl Jefferson who was the President and Founder of Concord Records. Which he did. Carl had this kind of grandfatherly vibe to me. He was such a loveable, loveable man. He flew me out there, and we talked about signing a three-album contract. The first one was my CD, I Didn’t Know About You, which Concord bought from me and reissued in 1992.

JVS: That was around the time of your Saturn Return, which is the big identity shift in one’s life.

Did you ever expect fame to come your way? And did it scare you, or did you just go with it?

KA: I pretty much just went with it. I don’t look back too much. It’s a hard life; it’s not like a free ticket just because you get signed with a label. And nowadays, with the internet the way it is, and people making their own records and promoting themselves, you almost don’t “need” one. And the record business is changing so much with downloading and all that that it’s not an easy life. But it’s usually a very gratifying life.

JVS: For someone who loves nature and solitude so much, what it’s like to go from gig to gig in airplanes and cars?

KA: It’s pretty draining. The older you get, the more draining it is. There are certain things that should be easy, that aren’t rocket science, like why aren’t they here to pick us up when we get off a twelve-hour plane flight? Then you have to get up onstage and act like it’s most beautiful thing. And you know, we are lucky people. I am grateful for where I live, being free. But there’s so much more work to be done to keep it that way. I don’t know – I’m kind of jumping all over the place…

You have to have a lot of inner strength. And the music has to be paramount. It’s not about posing up there. It’s about relaying messages, as much as you can, in a positive and healthy way. If that makes any sense…

JVS: Sure it makes sense.

Putting it all together, is there a message you want to relay to people through the music?

KA: Joy would be one. When I go to hear a concert – like when you’re playing a set, some things work better than others, and some nights are better than others – but my goal with every concert is to have people feel better than when they came in. When I go to a concert, I want it to be worth my while in some way. To bring people together and make them feel united in some way, or just have a special quiet moment to themselves.

I attended a concert at the Haguewith McCoy Tyner, who’s one of the icons of jazz. It made me want to go home and practice. I hope musicians, or maybe writers or painters feel that way, andare inspired to go home and do their work.

JVS: Which says to me that this is very much a living art for you. It’s not mechanical, it’s not rote.

KA: No, it isn’t. Sometimes I wish it were. Then it would hurt less, possibly. I could turn it off.

JVS: I’m so with you. You’re an artist and you’re sensitive to criticism.

KA: You know, I’m teaching at a Litchfield, CT workshop that starts on July 27, soon before the Iron Horse gig in Northampton. I’ll be on the faculty of the Litchfield Jazz Camp for the first time. It’s a very reputable, long-standing educational outreach program. My goal in teaching vocal students is to make sure that vocalists know that they’re musicians who sing, and they’re there to convey messages and tell stories. It’s basically what I’ve been saying. All we can do when we teach is spread the love of music.

JVS: I’m someone who fell in love with Schubert’s art songs as a teenager. I think I learned more about nature from listening to Schubert’s vocal accompaniment than from walking in the woods. And the singers who spoke to me the most were singers like Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schumann and Richard Tauber who were so expressive that you knew what they were singing about even if you couldn’t understand the words.

KA: Yes. People have said to me, how do you expect people to know what you’re saying when you sing in French or Portuguese? But people fell in love with Edith Piaf and they didn’t know what she was saying. Whether you liked her style or not, she could definitely get a message across.

JVS: I have learned so much about you from this chat. Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you’d like to share?

KA: We’re also doing the Filoli Festival in Woodside, CA on the 29th. Then it’s on to Europe and the East Coast.

This has really been great. Thank you so much for your time. I so much look forward to meeting you.