Blindfold Test: Karrin Allyson


Karrin Allyson’s most recent album is Shoulder To Shoulder: Centennial Tribute To Women’s Suffrage.

(Photo: Jim O’Keefe/

When DownBeat caught up with Karrin Allyson, the five-time Grammy-nominated singer and pianist was weeks away from a trip to Sony Hall in New York to film a performance featuring music on her latest album—Shoulder To Shoulder: Centennial Tribute To Women’s Suffrage, featuring her sextet with Ingrid Jensen, Mindi Abair, Helen Sung, Endea Owens and Allison Miller. For this Blindfold Test, Allyson commented on the music via Zoom from Massachusetts.

Aretha Franklin

“For All We Know” (Laughing On The Outside, Columbia, 1963) Franklin, vocals; Robert Mersey, producer/arranger/conductor.

That’s Aretha, isn’t it? Undeniably. It’s such a different background for her. With the strings, lovely. That’s “For All We Know.” I’d never heard the verse and I’d never heard this version. I love it when Aretha’s looking inward, instead of always just pushing it out, which she can do like no other. But I love when she’s being sentimental ... . Yeah, beautiful. In anyone else’s hands, that could be so corny, but like Ray Charles, I can hear him doing the exact same kind of vibe with this tune.

Camila Meza

“Atardecer” (Ámbar, Sony Masterworks, 2019) Meza, vocals, guitar; Eden Ladin, piano, synthesizer, celesta, keyboards; Noam Wiesenberg, bass; Keita Ogawa, drums, percussion; Tomoko Omura, Fung Chern Hwei, violin; Benjamin von Gutzeit, viola; Brian Sanders, cello.

At first, I’m thinking I’m listening to a new Brazilian singer, but it’s in Spanish, isn’t it? But the groove is rather Brazilian to me. Would it be from South America, not Mexican, I imagine? Claudia Acuña? I love the percussion; I’m a percussion freak. The strings are cool. It’s quite highly produced, with all the layering of the vocals and the strings. That’s beautiful. [after] I’m going to have to check her out. I love it.

Norma Winstone & John Taylor

“Lucky To Be Me” (In Concert, Sunnyside/Enodoc, 2020, rec’d 1988) Winstone, vocals; Taylor, piano.

I love the interplay. The pianist is amazing, whoever he is. A lot of implied rhythms—I like that. It reminded me of—I know it’s not Nancy King, I’d know Nancy King’s voice anywhere—but it reminds me of her and Steve Christofferson’s hookup. Whoever is singing is amazing. Her pitch is really great. It’s not Rebecca [Kilgore] and [Dave] Frishberg, is it? [after] Ah, yeah, she’s great. I feel bad I didn’t get that one. [laughs sheepishly] Oh, well. Beautiful.

Cécile McLorin Salvant

“Obsession” (The Window, Mack Avenue, 2018) Salvant, vocals; Sullivan Fortner, piano.

This is a very cool tune. Is this Cécile McLorin Salvant? I love it, and I love the piano-voice interplay between the two of them. The energy of the song fits what she is singing. It’s really angular in a way ... like an obsession. I really dig when someone’s being conversational [rather] than so singer-ly all the time. She can do either one, and I like the combination that she uses here. Her phrasing is really lovely because it doesn’t break up with unintentional breaths and not following through with the thought. I appreciate that in her style.

Camille Bertault

“Là Où Tu Vas (Giant Steps),” (Pas De Géant, OKeh, 2018) Bertault, vocals; Dan Tepfer, piano; Christophe “Disco” Minck, bass, harp, synthesizer; Jeff Ballard, drums.

OK! Arrêtez, arrêtez! Wow, that’s indeed a tour de force, literally, right? Did they do a transcription of [John Coltrane’s] solo or something? It reminds me of [early ’60s French vocal jazz group] Les Double Six.

I can imagine if I was listening to her live, I would be like this [jaw dropping], with my mouth on the floor. That is very cool. That’s an eye-opener—an ear-opener, I should say. I don’t know who did the lyrics—it goes by really fast, and I’d have to study them—but it sounds really natural. I like the fact that it’s almost comical, it’s so difficult.

Becca Stevens

“Both Still Here” (Regina, GroundUp, 2017) Stevens, vocals, mandolin; Jacob Collier, miscellaneous instruments, vocals.

That’s probably the least “jazz” thing you’ve played for me thus far. It’s funny how pop singers—and I don’t know this singer, she sounds great—have a way of saying “r,” you know, “arrr.” We used to joke with Nancy King, one of the greatest jazz singers on the planet. We used to call her “Nancy R. King,” because she’d sing, “Hearrrt,” and just lay into that “r.” You’d never ask a student to do that; you’d say, “No, honey, open that vowel.”

I love this stringed instrument. Is it a mandolin? Is she playing it? Very distinctive. … The vocal layers are interesting.

Fred Hersch & Jay Clayton

“Blame It On My Youth” (Beautiful Love, Sunnyside, 1995) Hersch, piano; Clayton, vocals.

Jay Clayton? Actually, is it her and Fred Hersch? I love Jay’s approach. It’s always fresh, and she’s always in that moment. I don’t want to say she’s underrated, because I rate her very high.

She’s got such a—I don’t know how to describe it—it’s sort of a mature but very childlike way of presenting her music. She means every word. There’s nothing like hearing experience in someone’s voice. You can layer all the shit in—you can do all kinds of bells and whistles, and no offense to any of that—but I’m still in love with the sonic sound of a beautiful piano opening up, which just happened there, and a beautiful voice opening up and sharing her truth. There’s nothing like that. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

This story originally was published in the December 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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