There’s a lot of promise in Geri Allen’s piano-driven tribute to her hometown of Detroit. The third in a series for Motéma Music, “Grand River Crossings,” crosses classical and jazz with Allen’s Motown roots in familiar pop songs from that era, as well as a few from some contemporary jazz artists, including Allen herself (“Grand River Crossings I,” “In Appreciation”).
When Allen does it right, as in the exquisite prelude “Grand River Crossings I,” her cross-over into classical and jazz is sublime.
Where it misses most of the time, is when she tries to do something with the known Motown hits.
Much of the piano work on this album sounds like comping or a teenager playing along to her favorite records. Lots of attempts at riffs off familiar melodies, but very little originality or feel.
What is “Let It Be?” but one in a long line of vague attempts?
Her piano flourish flows over “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” but completely unrecognizable to the original tune—a typical jazz satire.
“Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations,” scheduled for release on September 10, comes straight from Allen’s childhood. She lived near Grand River Avenue, a major thoroughfare in and out of her neighborhood. She’d go to the historic Cass Tech as her high school, to learn from some of the major Detroit artists in residence. Major inspiration, major influence.
“At that time, the face of the music curriculum of the Detroit Public Schools was revolutionizing the world from the basement of Motor City up,” Allen wrote in her liner notes. “Kids like us were changing the world with talents crafted and honed in these schools. Years before, that same musical public school training had fueled Detroit’s powerful jazz legacy, which became the musical rhizome feeding the Motown Sound. At Cass Tech, we didn’t just have a few music classes, we had three years of intensive training by master teachers, and Detroit artists in residence, invited to conduct workshops — from the fields of the classics — old and modern — jazz, spirituals and the blues. Grand River Crossings draws inspiration from all of these.”
Allen draws further inspiration from her immediate recording team, mentor/trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, the last living member of the Ray Charles Band and Detroit’s beloved Jazz Master Laureate, and alto saxophonist David McMurray. Together, they seek to honor the Detroit sound and uplift it with classical and jazz notes.
Stacking the decks with a whopping 15 tunes — although, to be fair, Allen’s original compositions are too short to be considered much more than preludes — the music rolls along nicely, if inoffensively and unremarkably.
The whole soundtrack of a soundtrack plays more like background music than any frontrunner in the jazz category. At some point, the notes Allen plays well begin to run into each other from song to song, without any distinguishing marks, tension or rich diversions. It’s hard to feel much more than zoned out.
A few solos do stand out within the gray monotone. McMurray comes alive in his stupendously tart blues solo on, “Itching In My Heart.” “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” shows some signs of life when Allen veers from the well-worn path with a piano outburst, in a flurry of showmanship and something akin to manic elation.
“Space Odyssey” by Marcus Belgrave is that one, perfect jazz departure and a much-needed respite from the Motown hustle. This fully realized tone on tone piece could very easily be the inspiration for another trilogy, one more suited to the give and take of a jazz ensemble than a generic attempt at one Motown tribute too many.
But Motown is what award-winning pianist Geri Allen wanted in this upcoming album, and a different Motown is what she got. “The music and the poetry still blows my mind each time I hear it. Marvin Gaye was a brilliant improviser. You can see and hear his sensibility, open fearlessness and soulful beauty on songs like ‘What’s Going On,’ the iconic Civil Rights Anthem. The music continues to connect to our lives today as though it were just recorded yesterday.”
Not quite, not in this new album, which fails to cross over enough.