Despite its time-honored traditions and universally familiar iconography, Christmas remains a holiday celebrated by each family and even each individual in their own personal style. Pianist/composer Geri Allen offers her own interpretation with A Child Is Born, a collection of traditional and original Christmas music that is profound and exuberant, solemn and joyous, spiritual and intimate.
Allen’s third release for Motéma Music is a solo sequel to her critically acclaimed solo debut, 2010′s Flying Toward the Sound. Where that release paid tribute to three of her creative inspirations – Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Cecil Taylor – A Child Is Born honors equally meaningful but perhaps even more deeply entrenched influences: family and spirituality. She refers to the album as “a joyous Christmas celebration and remembrance of a childhood where love was always unconditional.”
This holiday offering finds Allen at a particularly celebratory time of life. Her tandem 2010 releases on Motéma, the solo, Flying Toward the Sound, and the quartet, Timeline Live, have shown her to be at the top of her game, gaining unanimous acclaim internationally and jostling with each other for space on numerous year-end top ten lists. A 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship helped Allen facilitate her debut solo project on Motéma; and Timeline Live, which features the startlingly talented Maurice Chestnut on ‘tap-percussion,’ has been selling out houses world wide and garnered a career first for Allen: an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Jazz Album, alongside Herbie Hancock, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Wynton Marsalis, and Bobby McFerrin. National respect for Allen as a virtuosic, innovative performer, composer, and educator (she is currently an Associate Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan) is undeniable, as evidenced by two powerful recent honors of 2011.She was invited to perform in honor of the historic Dr. Martin Luther King Monument Unveiling this August in Washington D.C.
A Child Is Born is dedicated to Allen’s family, in particular to her father, Mount Allen, Jr. and mother, Barbara Jean Allen. “I am privileged and blessed to have grown up as the child of Barbara Jean and Mount Vernell Allen, Jr.,” she says. “I know God loved me because He gave them to my brother Mount and I. Memories of many loving Christmases with family remain as affirmations of the beauty of life and God’s never-ending love. Today, I share these timeless melodies and personal remembrances with my own children.”
Allen is also sharing this intimate celebration of Christmas with her extended family, her audience. These melodies of the celebration resonate with a reverence and awe that has remained an essential element of her playing throughout her remarkable career.
“These beautiful songs are so much a part of our cultural memories of the Christmas season,” Allen says, “so I wanted to honor each melody and evoke the feeling of ‘the dance’ as the foundation for every performance. The textures, harmonies and improvisations are fluid and very spontaneous.”
While she insists on each familiar melody expressing itself in a pure, direct fashion, her treatment marks each as uniquely expressive. The album begins with the abundantly joyful chamber-swing of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” immediately followed by the hushed solemnity of “A Child Is Born,” inspired by and dedicated to piano icon, Hank Jones. Allen has always felt a direct connection with Mr. Jones, both musically and through their connection to Pontiac, Michigan, where Jones, Allen, and Allen’s mother were all born.
Allen excels at communicating the meaning of traditional carols through her evocative interpretations. “We Three Kings” illuminates the mystery and exoticism of the Magi’s search, gradually growing in expectation through the sustained narrative of Allen’s improvisations. “Little Drummer Boy” is a portrait of its title character through both the pianist’s percussively insistent left hand and the innocent wonder of its melody, while “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is a vivid snow-covered landscape under bright moonlight. And the birth of Christ itself is rendered with the stark beauty of stained glass via a medley of “Away in a Manger,” “What Child Is This?” and “Silent Night.”
Of course, the traditions that Allen herself experienced growing up in Detroit, also find their way into her expression of the nativity. On both “Imagining Gena at Sunrise” and Imagining Gena at Sunset,” she ventures as far afield as Ethiopia, to offer her rendition of the traditional melody that is sung during the Christmas season. She creates two striking reinterpretations of that melody on Fender Rhodes, Farfisa organ, and concert celeste. “I am very inspired by Ethiopian music and culture,” Allen says, “and the joy of Christmas is alive in this melody.”
Other travels also proved inspirational to this recording. Allen was invited to perform at the first Jerusalem Jazz Festival in 2006 and seized upon the opportunity to pray at the Western Wall, see the Dead Sea Scrolls, and visit Bethlehem. She recreates that experience on “Journey to Bethlehem,” where the resonate spoken voice of Dr. Farah Griffin, along with Carolyn Brewer’s beautiful singing, serve as affirmations of intention. “We’re going to take this journey…”
While in Jerusalem, Ms. Allen visited the Church of the Nativity, where she was deeply moved by the beauty of, “a fourteen-point silver star, beneath the altar in the Grotto of the Nativity, which marks the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.”
That visit led directly to Allen’s setting of the text of Matthew 1:23 “GOD Is with Us,” an original piece which captures the wondrous optimism of her religious convictions. This piece leads into an interpretation of “Amazing Grace” possessed of a tender gratitude – this hymn, although not a traditional Christmas song, fits perfectly within Allen’s theme of gratitude and celebration.
Traditions from separate places and cultures also have a tendency to cross paths and meld together, a concept that Allen explores in gorgeous fashion on “Emmanuel I,” one of two settings of the traditional plainsong melody “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The haunting voices of the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a special community whose stunning quilts have been showcased in leading art museums around the country, are interwoven with the ancient chant, creating a richly soulful, and meditative experience
“Let Us Break Bread Together,” the communion hymn, is fitting as an invocation of a sacred place where so many families unite to renew bonds, relive old memories and create new ones. It’s the perfect way to end this Christmas journey, followed only by a reprise of the reverential “Emmanuel” melody.
“I extend my warmest wishes and expressions of gratitude to our family and to old and new friends and fans here at home and afar,” Allen says in summation of her artist notes. “For the joy of Christmas is something we can all share.”
Allen’s long time friend and colleague, Reverend Dwight Andrews, pens the album’s illuminating liner notes. Cover Artwork (etching on copper creation) by master printmaker, Kabuya Pamela Bowens. A portion of proceeds from A Child Is Born will be tithed to Bethany Church and the YWMCA of Newark who together provide invaluable services to people in need in the Newark Vicinity. Ms. Allen will perform a special Christmas Celebration at Bethany Church on December 17.
In addition to the CD, Motéma will release a special edition of holiday greeting cards featuring the beautiful, commissioned ‘Black Madonna’ CD cover image, etched by acclaimed print-maker Pamela Kubuya Bowens. The cards will be available at Motema.com and as well as other retail outlets. Both the CDs and the cards are available at a discount to businesses and not-for-profit organizations for holiday promotions and fundraisers.