The Prize Winner 1996

Geri Allen | Photo |

American pianist, band leader, composer, and educator. Born Pontiac, Michigan, June 12, 1957.

   Geri Allen has been called the most promising and versatile pianist that has emerged in the field of jazz within the last decade. She builds further upon the proud traditions of the jazz piano, which she has been able to unite and renew with impulses from the present and the past, from many different music forms and musical worlds. And into the bargain this comprehensive eclecticism is combined with a pronounced individualism.
   Geri Allen grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and was at an early age captured by the vitality of Motown's music scene. She is convinced that this fruitful environment has had a decisive influence on her work as a musician. At the age of seven Allen started playing the piano. She continued her musical education at Howard University in Washington and at The University of Pittsburg. The result of these studies was a master's degree in ethnomusicology.
   In 1982 Geri Allen moved to New York. Initially she was accepted by and identified with the free jazz fraternity. But new contacts were eventually established. She worked with James Newton, Steve Coleman's M-Base and many others. In 1984 Allen published Printmakers, the first record under her own name. In the late 80s she embarked on an often praised trio collaboration with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. Since then she has been in full swing, mostly with her own groups, one edition being a trio featuring Ron Carter and Lenny White.
   Among the younger pianists Geri Allen is one of the most independent and best informed. Like many younger African-Americans she puts a decisive emphasis on the roots of jazz. But bebop seems to lie closest to her heart. Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock are the key figures of modern jazz piano, Allen states. Other important mentors are Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. She ascribes a strong influence on her playing to a non-pianist, Eric Dolphy. But the whole development from Jelly Roll Morton and onward is far from foreign to her.
   Geri Allen has managed to extract a fully integrated musical language out of today's musical melting pot. But the most remarkable thing is that her statements on the piano include so many original traits. In the main she avoids all the well-known phrasings, or she rephrases them, thus communicating in a way that is not only different but also musically absolutely logical. She senses the secret of originality as distinct from mannerism.
   Included in Allen's continuing demands on herself is - alongside the striving for expanding musical horizons - a further development of her technical skills. A shining example is that she releases the dynamic potential of the instrument to perhaps a higher degree and with greater effect than any other jazz pianist does. By means of her delicately attuned touch she is capable of playing extremely softly without losing her special combination of tenderness and intensity.
   In the piano's middle register Allen occasionally colors her playing with block chords. This may be followed by a subdued and introverted passage, graceful and lyrical single lines brilliantly phrased - and then suddenly overwhelming power, awe-inspiring drama. On the whole her performances stir our emotions and challenge our minds with their manifold variety, shifting moods and layers of rhythmic patterns.
Allen's curiosity remains unimpaired, the will to penetrate down to the roots as well as to conquer new territory. She has a strong belief in the significance of both the cultural heritage and the experiment that takes development further. But she is just as far from being a wild rebel as being an obstinate keeper of tradition.
   Open on all sides - in the middle is the almost programmatic title of one of her albums. Having perfected her artistic effects Geri Allen is now better than ever able to express human emotions and experiences in the profound way which music alone makes possible, and in which its most important mission lies.

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