Karrin Allyson is no old-timer, but she belongs to an era of music that's rapidly fading into the mists of time.
Since her scintillating 1992 debut album "I Didn't Know About You" introduced her as a confidently swinging, tastefully scatting and emotionally incisive jazz singer, the four-time Grammy nominee has released every one of her acclaimed CDs for Concord Jazz. Until last year, that is, when she put out her own Christmas album, the appropriately celebratory "Yuletide Hideaway." She's quick to express appreciation for her productive two-decade relationship with Concord -- an uncommonly long affiliation in today's music business -- but she's not a bit sentimental about it.
"Carl Jefferson signed me himself, and I had wonderful experiences with him," says Allyson, referring to Concord's founder and guiding spirit, who parlayed his successful Lincoln Mercury car dealership in Concord into a popular jazz festival and then widely respected label that earned more than five dozen Grammys under his leadership.
"My producer Nick Phillips has been such a great friend, as have John Burk and Glen Barros," she says of the two who have run Concord since it was acquired by a consortium led by pioneering television producer Norman Lear. "I love them all. But I didn't become a musician to be connected to a record label."
Though Concord Records has been based in Beverly Hills for more than a decade, it seems entirely fitting that Allyson returns to Contra Costa to kick off the third season of Jazz at the Lesher Center, a series presented by the Diablo Regional Arts Association.
The suave guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli, who croons Beatles tunes and Nat King Cole numbers with equal confidence, performs on Aug. 9, followed by the soul-drenched band Clayton Brothers Quintet on Aug. 16. The series concludes on Aug. 23 with a young lion-turned-savvy-veteran, trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
For Allyson (whose first name is pronounced "Cahr-in"), the post-label era hasn't slowed her career a bit. She may well record for Concord again, but in the meantime, she's never been more visible. She's spent much of the past two months on the road with an all-star tour marking the 60th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival featuring trumpet great Randy Brecker and Israeli reed star Anat Cohen.
"I've loved getting to know Anat and Randy," Allyson says. "Sometimes I'm featured on songs and sometimes I serve as a horn player in the band, singing lines. It's a great honor to be involved in this group. There are seven leaders on stage, and it mostly works. We're touring in a bus with a road manager, so it's the rock 'n' roll life, much more plush than the usual tour."
For her Bay Area dates (she also performs Sunday afternoon as part of the Jazz at Filoli series in Woodside), Allyson is working with a similarly formidable band featuring her longtime guitarist Rob Fleeman, Seattle bassist Jeff Johnson and Los Angeles drum great Jeff Hamilton (Diana Krall's drummer of choice and a Concord Records mainstay). Her pianist is the highly sought after New York accompanist Bruce Barth, best known to Bay Area audiences through his work with Paula West.
A classically trained pianist, Allyson is increasingly accompanying herself for several numbers on every gig. She handles all the piano work (and much of the arranging) on her latest Concord album, 2011's ravishing "'Round Midnight." Though she is first to acknowledge that she's no Bud Powell acolyte, Allyson's playing proves highly effective on lilting ballads and folky songs like "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," "The Shadow of Your Smile" and "April Comes She Will." For Allyson, a singer well-versed in the Brazilian songbook and French chanson, the piano is just another creative avenue.
"I wanted to find different ways to express myself," she says. "There are certain times when you really can tell a story better, or differently, accompanying yourself. I'm no bebop pianist. I pick and choose the songs I play carefully. It adds an intimacy, another type of musicality, and it's fun and challenging."
Carl Jefferson, a man with an ear exquisitely tuned to the very best jazz-influenced vocalists, knew he had discovered a keeper when he first heard Allyson. Whether or not she still fits in at the label he founded, she has confirmed his impeccable judgment.
Contact Andrew Gilbert at email@example.com.
Kicking off Lesher jazz concert series
When: 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. July 12
Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
Remaining shows: John Pizzarelli (Aug. 9), Clayton Brothers Quintet (Aug. 16), Roy Hargrove (Aug. 23)