The pleasant, thoroughly intelligent, often-engaging, sometimes frustrating show set that Karrin Allyson played Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club started out strongly and ended that way, too.
In between, it lost some steam when Allyson headed to the piano to accompany herself. A voice as distinctive and a stage presence as strong as hers deserve a far higher caliber of jazz pianism than she was able to produce. That's not so surprising, in that effective jazz vocalists who play piano as well as they sing are not plentiful (though one of them, Patricia Barber, shows how it's done every Monday night on the same stage).
That said, Allyson presented herself well, at least vocally, before a large audience she has developed through two decades of annual engagements at the Mill. It's not difficult to understand why listeners turn out to hear her, for beyond the endearing quality of her voice – a honeyed tone that sounds like no one else's – Allyson makes the most of every note she sings. There are no glib gestures, no perfunctory turns of phrase, no throwaway lines. She performs everything with welcome intensity.
That was inescapably the case in "I Ain't Got Nothin' but the Blues," a vintage Duke Ellington work that, at this late date, practically invites overstatement and unintentional self parody. Allyson avoided all that by easing into a medium slow tempo, steering clear of blues clichés and investing meaning into well-worn lyrics. The remarkable elasticity of her lines and her knack for coyly sliding up to a pitch pointed to a singer who thinks deeply about what she does.
To her credit, Allyson peppered her set with unconventional repertoire. When was the last time you heard "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" (a tune inspired by Chopin) in a jazz setting? Allyson's version proved as personal as it was illuminating, the vocalist leaving plenty of space between phrases and reshaping the melody to suit her expressive needs.
Similarly, she finessed the tricky lines of another rarity in 21st century jazz circles, Blossom Dearie's "Bye Bye Country Boy," though at least one listener could have done without the trivialities of "I Found the Turnaround." If her scat singing throughout the set posed no threats to masters such as Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves, Allyson certainly brought more tonal weight and musical substance to these passages than many of her peers.
Unfortunately, her pianism proved so rudimentary that one had to wonder why she bothered, particularly when she was sharing the stage with such accomplished instrumentalists as guitarist Rod Fleeman, bassist Gerald Spaits and drummer Eric Montzka. By planting herself at the keyboard in the middle of her performance, Allyson immediately sacrificed the energy she had projected when standing stage center. And she did this for the privilege of dispensing basic chords in her left hand and simple, stodgy, single-note melody lines in the right? Moreover, the balance between her voice and her band often went askew in this context.
By taking on Bill Evans' "Turn Out the Stars" from the piano, Allyson inevitably referenced Evans' keyboard virtuosity, an unfortunate point of comparison that diminished her otherwise radiant vocal work.
When Allyson returned to center stage to conclude her set in uptempo fashion, she regained control of the performance and reminded listeners of her strengths as vocalist, interpreter and storyteller, which are considerable. She would do well to focus her attention there.
Karrin Allyson performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.