She might sing Billy Joel tunes, but it’s still jazz to Karrin Allyson.

Uptown Girl 

She might sing Billy Joel tunes, but it’s still jazz to Karrin Allyson.

It's officially a movement. Thanks to Norah Jones, jazz once again has entered the music mainstream, garnering the sort of Top 40 radio airplay and record sales it hasn't managed in years. Signed to Blue Note, a bastion for jazz and blues acts for more than six decades, Jones represents a new twist in the industry image makers' time-honored crossover quest. Not to undermine the talent, appeal and potential of such acts -- Jones certainly has all three -- but the overt injection of pop sensibilities into a tradition-minded genre has left staunch purists crying foul.

Yet such objections are falling on deaf ears, mostly because, as veteran jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson says, there just aren't enough of them to make much of a racket.

"I've heard it quoted that the jazz listeners are 2 percent of the listening population," Allyson explains over the phone from her home in New York. "Someone's always looking to broaden that, sell more records. That's what the record companies want. I don't blame the fans. It's a sore spot for me as well."

Meanwhile, the narrowly defined canon of jazz standards is starting to incorporate relatively youthful material from the likes of Joni Mitchell and Billy Joel. Although it might be strange to see songs from such acts sharing album space with Rodgers and Hart compositions, Allyson says this phenomenon stems from artists' natural desire to incorporate their own experiences into their music.

"I grew up in that era," Allyson says. "I started playing all those folks when I started performing live. It's important to draw from your own history and add it to whatever else you're doing. If I were a painter and I had certain influences that weren't particularly traditional in art but were artists I dug, I would add that into my painting.

"It does make a difference how you do that if you call yourself a jazz artist, though that's pretty much open to interpretation, too," Allyson continues after a pensive pause. "It's kind of like what Louis Armstrong said -- how does it go? 'If you have to ask what it is, you'll never know'? Something like that? I don't know. I guess it doesn't really matter what you do -- it's how you do it."

Allyson's repertoire draws a fair amount from more contemporary sources, including tunes from Janis Ian and Bonnie Raitt as well as Mitchell and Joel. The important thing to consider, she emphasizes, is the artist's approach to the material.

"It has to be a quality tune," she says. "It has to be saying something, not just 'oooh, baby, come on over,' all that inane crap. And it's the players that you work with. Are they jazz players? Am I going to hire Sting to play bass with me? Probably not. Not that I wouldn't like to, but then it might not be more of a jazz thing. With the Janis Ian tune 'Jesse,' I can give it to a real jazz musician like Danny Embrey or Rod Fleeman for reharmonization, and that's what really makes it into a jazz tune or helps it come across as a jazz tune. It's the harmony and the improvisation that you might do with it."

Careful consideration has been a keystone of Allyson's career. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, Allyson set out to make her way as a performing musician, spending stints in Omaha and Minneapolis before settling on Kansas City as a place to take her career to the next level.

"I knew I wanted to be there more than the other places," Allyson recalls. "It just felt right to me. Jazz goes through ebbs and flows, meaning scenes and towns, and I felt like that was a really happening time for Kansas City. One thing I've always said about Kansas City is that it has so much spirit and so much soul going on and that the audiences are great."

Asked about her move to New York a few years ago -- a question that often looms in the minds of area fans after witnessing a number of local songbirds take flight for the coasts -- Allyson demurs.

"I've always dreamed about living in New York or Paris," Allyson says. "It wasn't that Kansas City drove me away by any means. It's a great spawning ground, really. It's just that artists start to get big eyes about going elsewhere and trying out different places. But it's not Kansas City's fault."

Still, Allyson understands that perceptions are important, a fact that comes up again as the conversation steers toward the topic of music-industry image making. Recently, vocalists such as Diana Krall and Jane Monheit have created a stir by packing their music with a potent dose of smoldering sexuality. Allyson points out that although the tempting-torch-singer persona is nothing new, it's also not an image she pursues.

"Record labels can make some money off of it," she says. "It's pretty simple, really. What I'm trying to do with each album is rediscover more about myself as a musician and person all across the board. Capturing the mood of an album is important, not showing skin or being some sort of sexpot. I'm not a spring chicken anymore in that I don't let people do things to me that I don't want them to do.

"Then again, it's just a picture," she reconsiders aloud with a laugh. "I have mixed feelings about it because once I'm done with it, I'm done with it. I move on."

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