Jazz singer Karrin (pronounced CAR-in) Allyson achieved success in the 1990s as “a musician who can scat with authority, handle slow tempos with ease, and swing with abandon,” according to MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide. She continued to earn acclaim into the 2000s with such releases as the double Grammy Award-nominated Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane and In Blue.
Born circa 1963 in Great Bend, Kansas, Allyson was the daughter of a Lutheran minister and a college professor. She spent the early years of her life in Omaha, Nebraska, and began her musical training when she was six. Attracted to the music of Carole King, Melissa Manchester, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell, she sang pop tunes while playing the piano.
Her parents divorced when she was a teenager, and Allyson moved to San Francisco, California, with her mother. In high school she honed her skills further, becoming involved in musical theater and composing her own songs. After graduation she returned to Omaha to attend the University of Nebraska. There she discovered the music of Cannonball Adderley, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and Dinah Washington. “I didn’t discover jazz until college,” she told the Arizona Republic. “Before that it was pop and classical singers, songwriters, stuff like that.” She began studying the piano more seriously, playing in various groups and forming and all-girl rock band called Tomboy.
Allyson graduated in 1987 with a degree in classical piano. Increasingly drawn to jazz, however, she moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she played in jazz clubs, including the Dakota Bar and Grill. She met Bill McGlaughlin, the host of the popular Minnesota Public Radio program St. Paul’s Sunday Morning. They’ve been a couple ever since.
To further her career she went to Kansas City, Kansas, “where I lived for 10 years and cut my teeth on jazz,” she told Dave Zuchowski of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here she met several talented musicians: Danny Embrey, Paul Smith, Bob Bowman, and Todd Strait, with whom she’s done most of her recordings.
In 1992 she released her self-produced debut album I Didn’t Know About You. This led to a contract with Concorde Records, who reissued the album in 1993. Allyson began touring the United States, and then around the world, spending about two-thirds of her time on the road. Critical acclaim began to build, and in 1995 Down Beat wrote, “K.C. native Allyson has a tight, tidy instrument, with touches of smoke and nasality as well as snappy vibrato and careful diction.” Over the next several years she released Sweet Home Cookin’, Azure-Te, Collage, and Daydream.
In 1999 she received a great deal of attention for her release of From Paris to Rio, which broke recording
Born c. 1963 in Great Bend, KS; daughter of a Lutheran minister and a college professor. Education: Bachelor’s degree in classical piano, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1987.
Began career playing and singing in Minneapolis, MN, clubs; began recording career in Kansas City, KS, gained attention for From Paris to Rio, 1999; Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane earned two Grammy Award nominations, 2001; released In Blue, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Concord Records, Inc., 100 N. Crescent Drive, Suite 275, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Website— Karrin Allyson Official Website: http://www.karrin.com.
tradition by including songs in a variety of languages—French, Portuguese, Brazilian, Italian, and English. “Surprisingly, Allyson says she encountered no resistance from her record company when she said she wanted to do an album in Portuguese and French. Perhaps that’s because she can sell a song, no matter what language it’s in. A crisp, precise singer with superb intonation and a smart sense of swing, Allyson sings with a pleasantly husky rasp and great projection,” wrote the Seattle Times. “Allyson’s Portuguese is good; her French, which she studied in college, is even better.”
Allyson says her ideas for albums often come from her experiences with listeners. “I also get a lot of faith and encouragement from my audience,” Allyson says for Billboard, “and often they give me an idea for my next album before I even come up with it myself. People tell me how much they loved hearing me sing a Brazilian song or a blues [song] and wonder when I will do an entire album of songs in that style. I put that in my head and move along, and when the idea speaks strongly enough to me, I pull it out of my hat and run with it.”
Near the end of the 1990s, Allyson decided it was time to move to New York City, and so she and long-time partner Bill McGlaughlin moved to the city’s Upper West Side. She admits that the jazz industry takes her more seriously now that she lives in New York, but she still spends a great deal of time on the road, continuing to work at many of the same clubs. “I didn’t go to New York expecting to work every night,” she said in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “and I’m not there that often, because I’m traveling all the time. I moved there to be influenced by the scene there, and to enjoy the scene.”
Allyson’s next venture was a tribute to one of the jazz greats, Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane. The album struck a compelling balance between her own personality and Coltrane’s music. “It’s hard to pinpoint any subconscious influences,” she explained to the Edmonton Journal. “I wasn’t trying to sing like he played, but I was making a conscious effort to try and capture the spiritual quality in his music. Singing those ballads wasn’t just about doing love songs.”
For her work on Ballads, Allyson received two Grammy nominations, for Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical in 2002. “I know everyone says it’s an honor just to be [nominated],” she told the Los Angeles Times, “but it’s the truth. I mean, look at the group I’m in—Shirley Horn, Mose Allison, Kurt Elling, Dianne Reeves—wow! I really am happy just to be there.”
Although Allyson did not win the award, her career continued to move upward, recording In Blue in 2002. “I’ve always loved the blues,” said Allyson to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. “I love the way the blues let you testify. I am a person who happens to be pretty adamant about the things I believe in. Some of the tunes allow me to express those personal feelings, not just about the heartbreak, but also about social issues, too, as well as telling a story.” In Blue was the first album by a vocalist to be the most-played disc at jazz stations five weeks in a row.
Allyson’s music and broad range of talent has captured the attention of listeners around the globe. Her love of performing, dedication, and hard work will undoubtedly put her on future Grammy. According to the Buffalo News, “She’s the hippest, smartest and gutsiest in jazz’s current run of cutie-pie singers.”
I Didn’t Know About You, 1992; reissued, Concord, 1993.
Sweef Home Cookin’, Concord, 1993.
Azure-Te, Concord, 1995.
Collage, Concord, 1996.
Daydream, Concord, 1997.
From Paris to Rio, Concord, 1999.
Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane, Concord, 2001.
In Blue, Concord, 2002.
Holtje, Steve, and Nancy Ann Lee, MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Arizona Republic, September 25, 2002, p. E1.
Billboard, August 31, 2002.
Boston Globe, November 1, 2002, p. C13.
Boston Herald, Nov. 1, 2002, p. s23.
Buffalo News, September 20, 2002.
Down Beat, August 1995, p. 54.
Edmonton Journal (Alberta, Canada), September 28, 2001, p. E5.
Los Angeles Times, Feb 27, 2002, p. F-1.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 30, 2002, p. W-4; November 18, 2002, p. B-4.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 5, 2002, p. B-5.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 25, 2002, p. 4.
Seattle Times, July 29, 1999, p. G24.
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