A performance by vocalist and pianist Karrin Allyson is less a concert, more an exchange of confidences. It’s a warm and intimate experience and, if you happen to be there with your sweetheart, very romantic. She’s there to tell you all about life and love, sorrow and passion, and if she occasionally sings in Portuguese, you still catch her meaning.
Allyson is in town for two nights at the Dakota, where it’s evident she feels at home. Born in Kansas, she built her early career in Minneapolis, performing often at the old Dakota in Bandana Square. Today she lives in New York City but usually makes her way back here once a year, where family and friends come to see her and call out requests.
The three-time Grammy nominee is on tour for her soon-to-be-released CD, “By Request: The Best of Karrin Allyson,” her 12th on the Concord label. (Her long-standing relationship with Concord is remarkable in itself.) Copies weren’t available last night but should be tonight, if you want to pick one up and have one signed.
Over the years, I’ve seen Allyson with various bands and configurations. In April 2008 she brought vibist Steve Nelson, guitarist Rod Fleeman and bassist Larry Kohut along; they were joined by drummer Phil Hey. This time she has stripped it down to strings, just Fleeman and Kohut, which heightens the sense that this is a private affair and the Dakota is your living room.
Last night’s second set was strong and satisfying. Moving back and forth from center stage to the piano, Allyson drew from her large and eclectic repertoire: the Wes Montgomery tune “I’ve Got the Blues,” Jobim’s “Desafinado” and “Estrada do Sol,” Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” “Night and Day,” a saucy, sassy “Sweet Home Cookin’ Man” (“They say true love is when a man brings home the groceries instead of eating up all of yours”).
She’s so comfortable on stage, so relaxed and at ease, in touch with her band and her audience, that you almost forget you can’t strike up a conversation with her. The relationship between Allyson and her band is close and affectionate. At one point when she was not at the piano, she reached over to touch Fleeman’s cheek.
Area pianist Laura Caviani, a longtime friend, was in the house, and Allyson invited her on stage for a pair of songs: Caviani’s arrangement of Bobby Timmens’s “Moanin’,” the Johnny van Heusen tune “Nancy with the Laughing Face.” Written for Frank Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy, it features lyrics by Sgt. Bilko himself, Phil Silvers, the only song he ever wrote. Aside: Caviani was recently in a car accident that injured her right hand. If last night was any indication, she’s making a full recovery.
Allyson’s voice is in fine form, a smoky alto you don’t forget once you’ve heard it. Her style is conversational, as if she’s sharing personal experiences, though she can and does wail a blues and bring home a pop tune like Randy Newman’s “Guilty,” last night’s encore. Her scatting seems effortless, natural moments within songs instead of showy displays.
Here’s a video of “Moanin’ ” from the 2003 Montreux Jazz Festival. If you like what you see and hear, check out the real thing tonight.
Karrin Allyson at the Dakota, Wednesday, June 24, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. ($40/$25).