Eyes...In the Back of Your Head
DEPARTING FROM THE spunky bop that enlivened her 1994 masterwork Twenty One, this series of solo, duet, and trio recordings is clearly intended to solidify the 40-year-old Allen's status as the most complete and personally engaging pianist of her generation. Composing or co-writing nine of the 10 tracks, Allen eschews the rhythmic safety net of a drummer or bassist and enlists the support of her trumpeter/husband Wallace Roney, percussionist Cyro Baptista, and, in two rare guest appearances, the iconoclastic genius of Ornette Coleman on alto saxophone.
Two years ago, Allen became the first pianist Coleman had played with in more than three decades, and two of their songs together are among this album's highlights. On "Vertical Flowing," Ornette's horn sounds as shrill and buoyant as an alarmed bird, while Allen aggressively answers in kind with clustered fragments and insistent repetitions reminiscent of another avant-garde luminary, Cecil Taylor. Roney and Baptista are also well-showcased. Allen is generally able to pry open Roney's pedantic reserve and turn slavish Miles Davis imitations into more adventurous excursions (especially on the ambiguously named "M.O.P.E.") without sacrificing the midnight-blue yearning of Roney's tone. When the trumpeter does succumb to his Miles addiction, he and Allen neatly abet it with the Gil Evans-like arrangement-in-miniature of "In the Back of Your Head." Baptista has never sounded better, relying wisely on liquid percussion sounds akin to tumbling pebbles in a babbling mountain stream.
Ironically, only Allen herself fails to fully satisfy. Conceptually speaking, this is without question her strongest outing, but it's also her most self-contained. Her intimate paean for her newborn son, "New Eyes Opening," captures the sublime grace and tentative movements of an infant, and her cover of Ron Carter's "Little Waltz" fulfills the tune's stately mix of jazz and classical forms. But these rigorous triumphs come at the expense of Allen's more freewheeling ability to push the bop envelope into new melodic shapes and tonal colors. On Twenty One, Allen embodied the definition of jazz as the "sound of surprise." The warm beauty of Eyes..., while instantly pleasing, may become a tad too familiar a tad too soon.
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