Jazz singer Karrin Allyson scored the biggest commercial success of her career with last year's Ballads, which contained covers of all the songs that appeared on John Coltrane's famous 1962 recording of that title; next week she'll release another thematic disc, In Blue (Concord), on which she explores the most familiar hue in popular music. Some of the songs stick close to traditional blues forms--the jazz standard "Moanin'," the hard-core Bonnie Raitt fave "Love Me Like a Man"--while others, such as Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy," refract the genre through a sophisticated jazz sensibility; Allyson's palette also includes Joni Mitchell's considerably lighter (but no less soulful) "Blue Motel Room," as well as several songs ("Angel Eyes," "The Meaning of the Blues") that aren't structurally blues at all, but qualify because of their melancholy and longing. Allyson spent the early part of her career in her hometown of Kansas City, a burg drenched in the blues, and she's included a convincing blues or two on almost all of her previous albums. Still, I doubt her fans expected In Blue. Allyson's sunny but smoky girl-next-door voice is hardly ideal for the blues as most of us know it. She actually sounds a little like her namesake, actress June Allyson--she has a similar ability to disarm an audience with bright-eyed sweetness, then swoop in with a touch of mischievous sexuality. But Allyson makes the album work by dint of her professionalism: with the arrangements, the variety and sequencing of the material, her lovely scat improvising, and her interpretations, she reveals solid instincts and a perfectionist's approach to detail. And her live shows, full of sugar and spice but also spit and vinegar, display all the same virtues--except for the perfectionism. Allyson has the good sense and confidence to stay loose onstage; she's not afraid to let the proceedings unravel a bit when the moment demands it, and as a result her performances usually soar. Friday, August 2, 9 PM, and Saturday, August 3, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randee St. Nicholas.