Karrin Allyson was, to many, the crown jewel of this year's 25th anniversary celebration of The Buffalo News Jazz Series on the steps of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. In the entire history of the series, in fact, no featured jazz artist has probably had a bigger name or reputation.
To be perfectly frank, she was also my biggest worry in the entire series this year.
She is, at best, an intimate performer. Her glory is her wit and the intimacy of her charm. Her alto voice is beautiful, but its sweetness is smoky and a little bit husky. And she's no vocal gymnast.
It's a muslin voice, not silken; it's made of homespun fabric and for domestic consumption, not luxuriant finery for gaudy display. Her personality is about four different shades of adorable. We're not talking about a Madonna who can make a full and screaming stadium seem small.
Her art seems to be made for small venues and a roof over her head.
Allyson can stretch it -- as she did on her last Buffalo visit -- to fill a venue the size of Rockwell Hall. But I frankly worried more than a little about asking her to dominate a sizable chunk of very expensive Delaware District real estate on a sunny Sunday.
Could she cast a spell in open-aired sunlight while a crowd stretched from the expressway to the foot of Lincoln Parkway?
It took her fifth song Sunday afternoon to tell the tale. After singing four songs with her trio (and putting on a yellow cap against the sun for the fourth, Nat Adderley's "Never Say Yes," she ambled over to the piano to sing her version of Wayne Shorter's abstractly wistful "Footprints." Never mind that barking dog who suddenly (and blissfully briefly) decided to compete, she sang it as spellbindingly as she needed to.
I think Allyson knew from the start this wasn't going to be her easiest gig. She made it all hers anyway.
She began by singing Artie Shaw's "Moonray" and motioned up at the sun to go away. (Later she sang "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" -- her way of hexing the sun, perhaps.)
She also made an initial finger-snapping mime to her rhythm section to get them to swing a little more. She was getting her party started.
Her rhythm section got the message in half a beat. The sun didn't (although the day was, at least, mercifully cloudy and breezy.)
Allyson likes to dance and choogle a little bit when she's not singing or playing the piano (like some foods, some jazz rhythms go straight to the hips). She'll shake a gourd now and then, too.
She's no calorie-burning Shakira out there, but she too is working, which is why she decided to do a big 90-minute set rather than two 45-minute ones.
With all the distractions -- the big Jeep Cherokee horn blaring during one bossa nova, the motorcycle peeling down Nottingham Terrace, the potential for birds acting as tough critics -- she owned the crowd.
And when, during one blues, she sang of a lover who's "a devil with the face of an angel" and a romance that's "sweet as homemade sin" and then began one of her many sedate scats. As she did, she choogled a little. So, spontaneously, did a little two-year-old girl who suddenly wandered in front of where I was sitting on the gallery steps.
At that moment, with performers and that two-year-old swaying, you got a gist of what the News Albright-Knox series was all about.
While Allyson is too solidly middle-American to grandstand, her choice of repertoire is nothing if not canny and audience-savvy. She knows the kind of '60s soul jazz tunes that connect quickly to audiences, and she can sing a Joni Mitchell song so cleverly that a line like "I want to shampoo you" comes through with all the seductive humor of the original.
Her musicians -- including drummer Todd Straight and guitarist Paul Meyers -- are perfectly attuned to the tasty Allyson way of doing things.
By concert's end, so was the crowd that wanted more.
The sun stayed.
Allyson, alas, was finished for the day.
Sunday afternoon as part of The Buffalo News' Jazz at the Albright-Knox series.