Alyssa Allgood Enjoys the View From Here

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With her new crowdfunded release From Here, Allgood is hitting the big leagues.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Jazz singers are a rarified breed. Only a handful actually make it and sustain a career with any degree of national or international notoriety. They have to be uniformly steely and tenacious, yet translate tenderness and vulnerability, too.

Chicago’s Alyssa Allgood was only half kidding when she quipped, “We’re mad good!” about her professional partnership with saxophonist Chris Madsen at Winters Jazz Club in April, where they performed a superb set of Ellingtonia alongside Christian Dillingham, Greg Artry and Ben Waltzer. “We hope you’ll agree,” she bashfully added before faultlessly frolicking through “I’m Beginning To See The Light,” “Just Squeeze Me” and a rambunctious “I Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues.” Yet, at 31, while pointing out that Strayhorn wrote the song as a teenager, she also tackled “Lush Life” and more poignantly still, “I Didn’t Know About You.”

Although Allgood is well known in Chicago for her consummate command of repertoire and a consistent string of albums under her own name — as well as her work as an educator (she directs the Vocal Jazz Ensemble at University of Illinois Chicago and teaches arranging) — with her latest offering, a crowdfunded release on the Next label, she’s hitting the big league.

From Here, produced by vocalist Jeff Baker and recorded at Gradwell House in New Jersey last August, boasts world-class personnel with bassist John Patitucci, pianist Geoffrey Keezer, drummer Kendrick Scott and quicksilver saxophonist Greg Ward.

It takes a minute to grow into a truly individual artist, but a potent enquiry from course director Dana Hall while studying for her master’s degree in jazz studies at DePaul hastened the Westmont, Illinois-raised Allgood’s agenda: “Are you ready to commit to yourself?”

“That question really helped push me to intention,” recalled Allgood, before performing at Winters, the picturesque downtown Chicago riverside club with a reputation as a singer’s room. Allgood had been working up originals for a while, including “Time Told,” a co-write with bassist Dennis Carroll from her 2021 album What Tomorrow Brings (Cellar Music) that serves as a vehicle for her scat skills. However, a serendipitous meeting with Next Label founder Baker at the JEN conference in Orlando offered opportunity (with additional help from Luminarts Cultural Foundation) to double down on her egalitarian message of self-belief and positivity.

“We started Next Records in 2019 to serve as a launchpad for emerging artists we felt were worthy of wider recognition,” commented Baker via email. “Alyssa is the first artist we’ve signed who arrived with an established career to match her extraordinary talent, so her needs as an artist were different.”

The expectant What Tomorrow Brings gave notice of Allgood’s boldness, swagger, surefooted musicianship and a thirst for mature songs like Abbey Lincoln’s regretfully defiant “Should Have Been.” The existential shrug of Lincoln’s line “But here we are, we are here” might well have subliminally suggested the title “From Here,” but it’s clear in the soaring-against-odds conceits of her new songs — “Your Wings,” “Still Searching” and the alchemically optimistic “Turn To Gold” — that Allgood knows how to flip lingering lamentation into booster packs for collective uplift.

After a dramatic press roll from Kendrick Scott, Ward’s fleet-and-feathery alto heralds “Burn (For Betty),” the opening track from the Next album, which alternates slow strut with bristling quadruple time from bass ace Patitucci. Keezer punctuates and coruscates as Ward darts, ducks and dives. These dudes provide a wild ride, but Allgood is more than surf-ready and scats back on the tide, then glides. When pressed to comment about working with these master musicians, she encapsulates in one word: “Open,” she states, “they’re incredibly open.”

The burning Betty in question is Betty Carter, and like that formidable forebear, Allgood is a jazz musician first, whose instrument is the voice. Not invested in representing the pretty thing who stands in front of the band, she’ll wear pants and jumpsuit ahead of frilly frock. “I love the way Kurt Elling, for example, takes responsibility for shifting energy and dynamics,” she enthuses, “shapes the flow, occupies the music.” You can hear such activity on “No Good,” an eat-my-dust original that whiffs of a Bob Dorough or Johnny Frigo ditty. After echoing a woodpecker riff from Scott’s snare, evidence she’s a listener as well as a forceful leader, Allgood ascends with a poised scat line two minutes in.

Ella is clearly an influence (Allgood was the first winner of the Ella Fitzgerald Jazz Vocal Competition in 2017), as is Joni Mitchell (beyond the rendition here of “Both Sides Now”); perhaps portions of Flora Purim powder the fade of “Still Searching.” But Allgood has forged her own hard-won, distinct message about personal empowerment. Where Mitchell found the devil in detail, Allgood opts for universal sentiments, her lyrics communing with each other in a blossoming, triumphant suite, buttressed with structural ideas, such as the boppish pas de deux with Patitucci on “Your Wings,” and the budding beginning of “Brave Little Flower,” which grows into klaxon stomp.

“Turn To Gold” bears close inspection, the cliché of the title belied by an autumnal metaphor: “Listen to the leaves/The sigh that each one breathes/They whisper to the wind ‘Let’s begin’/Ready to let go/Their colors show.”

“Dream” is a lovely moment; it trumps “On A Clear Day,” which follows with Allgood’s own manifesto. “Stop wishing on the moon/Start working for you/That’s when your dreams come true,” she sings as Ward curlicues round her. “At one point I thought I must have added a harmony but it was Greg perfectly shadowing me,” comments Allgood about the session, which was sumptuously recorded by Matt Weber and mixed by Chicago veteran Brian Schwab.

Making a beautiful record ain’t all she wrote, though. You’ve got to shop the wares, and to that end Allgood, who books her own gigs, already had vinyl pressed to accompany her CD release residency at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase, where she was joined by Ward, Scott, pianist Julius Tucker and bassist Ethan Philion.

“I think working with Next has allowed Alyssa to tap into the larger jazz community, and to assert herself as a composer, arranger and creative artist,” said Baker. “I also believe the label helped her galvanize her ‘tribe’ of fans and listeners, and pour the support and resources directly into the project. Alyssa is a force of nature, and I believe From Here is finally her music, her voice and her vision presented, without compromise.” DB



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