‘Round Midnight, jazz vocalist and pianist Karrin Allyson’s latest, is set for release in May, and let me tell you, it’s a winner. The 11 songs she has chosen are an eclectic mix of pop and jazz standards, a bit of Broadway, and a bit of Hollywood. Most are songs you’ve heard before, but never quite the way Allyson sings them. The elegant clarity of her voice, combined with the subtle nuances of her organic phrasing make these songs her own. She can be sad. She can be plaintive. She can be sultry. She can’t be cliché. This is a true artist at work.
The album opens with Bill Evans’ “Turn Out the Stars.” In her notes, Allyson points out that Evans usually played this up-tempo, but she takes it at a slower pace “with lots of stretched out time.” The slower tempo focuses on the darker pathos of the lyric, “Let eternal darkness hide me.”
“April Come She Will,” a Paul Simon composition, is delivered with a simplicity that remains true to its folk rock roots. “Goodbye,” perhaps most often associated with Benny Goodman, is treated with what she calls a “rhumba groove,” while still echoing the plaintive sadness inherent in the lyric. It is a masterly reading of this favorite. Melancholy music, like this, pervades the album.
Her version of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” drips with the sadness of unfulfilled dreams, while her take on the classic “Smile” focuses less on the stiff upper lip advice than the tears that need to be hidden. Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” gets a similar treatment. These are great songs interpreted with real emotional truth.
Jazz standards “Sophisticated Lady” and the title track (“‘Round Midnight”) highlight the album. The Duke Ellington classic is handled with a nice, easy, swinging tempo and some sweet harmonica accents from Randy Weinstein. Allyson’s vocal has a sultry quality that is unique on this album. Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” is a duet between Allyson and bassist, Ed Howard. His accompaniment and evocative solo work provide an interesting counterpoint to her melodious vocals.
Although most of the songs on the album are well known, there are two that I hadn’t heard before. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” gets a swinging treatment that, unlike most of the other songs on the record, contrasts with the sadness of the lyric. Allyson’s notes point out that according to Fran Landesman, who wrote the song with Tommy Wolf, the lyric was based on the T.S. Eliot line about April being the cruelest month in “The Wasteland.” It is certainly bleak enough.
“There’s No Such Thing As Love,” she calls Anthony Newley’s “heartbreaker.” It is an ironic evocation of all the losses encompassed in the loss of love. Here, Allyson’s vocal is accompanied by her solo piano. Indeed, the singer handles all the piano and keyboard work on the album for the first time, she tells us in the liner notes.
Besides Howard and Weinstein, she is joined by guitarist Rod Fleeman and drummer Matt Wilson. Bob Sheppard plays woodwinds. His solo work stands out on a number of tracks. He plays tenor sax on “Turn Out the Stars,” bass clarinet on “Goodbye,” soprano sax on “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” and flute on “The Shadow of Your Smile.” With the exception of Wilson, this is an ensemble that has played together and knows each other well. More importantly, this is an ensemble that can play.
‘Round Midnight is not a collection of happy songs. They are songs of lost love and heartbreak. They voice the hurt of loss and betrayal. While there may be some who find themselves overwhelmed by the melancholy of her selections, Allyson is clear that singing these songs of love gone bad is cathartic. “Embracing the difficult emotions is part of the healing process,” she says. If singing them can do the healing, listening to a great singer singing them might do the job for the rest of us.