Listening to the latest solo album from pianist extraordinaire Geri Allen is much akin to listening to a classical virtuoso in recital, with at least one significant difference. Where the classical recital is all about technique and interpretation, what Geri Allen, a consummate jazz artist, is all about is technique and interpretation sure, but even more importantly, creation in the moment. An album like Allen’s Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations, her third solo effort in recent years, is an opportunity to listen in to a true artist in the act to creation. It is an opportunity not to be missed.
The album, which in some sense is a loving gift to Detroit, the city in which she was raised, takes its title from Grand River Avenue, a busy major thoroughfare. Crossing Grand River Avenue alone on her own, Allen explains in the liner notes, was her first major right of passage. What better title for still another solo flight? Add to that a menu of tunes culled from what has become the Detroit songbook as well as an original or two from Allen herself as well as some other native sons, and you have the makings of a feast for the ear. Given the somber news coming out of the Motor City in recent months, it is refreshing, to say the least, to hear someone show some love for the place.
Of the 15 tracks on the disc, there are three short interpolations by Allen: “Grand River Crossings I and II” and “In Appreciation.” The first two are introspective pieces, while the last is a driving nod to the Motown sound. There are also four tracks featuring guest artists. Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave joins Allen on his own piece, the impressionistic fantasia, “Space Odyssey.” He is also featured on “The Smart Set” and the swinging “Nancy Joe” which closes the album. Alto sax player David McMurray plays with Allen on the Holland-Dozier-Holland tune, “Itching in My Heart,” a relatively short exploration of the rocker that may leave you wanting more.
Allen’s solo takes on the Motown classics, on the other hand, are more than satisfying. Her work on “Tears of a Clown” is sensitively elegant and “That Girl” is a lyrical jewel. She finds all sorts of latent ideas in “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” and her treatment of Frank Wilson’s “Stoned Love” is something of a revelation. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” gives her an opportunity for a change of pace and “Save the Children” is nothing short of a passionate emotional challenge.
If you want to hear what a great jazz artist can do with somewhat unusual material, this is an album you’ll want to hear. If you just want to hear some great music, this is still an album you’ll want to listen to.