Saturday, December 24, 2022

Allison Neale by Gordon Jack

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend in allowing JazzProfiles to re-publish his perceptive and well-researched writings on various topics about Jazz and its makers.

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.

The following article was published in the October 10, 2022 edition of Jazz Journal. 

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© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“In a Jazz Journal interview with Bruce Lindsay (April 2013) Allison Neale said that she managed to operate under the radar without courting publicity. That said her understated, west-coast cool approach has been impressing local aficionados now for a number of years. I first heard her when Trudy Kerr sent me a copy of her 2018 Take Five CD which is a tribute to Paul Desmond (jazzizit jitcd1880). Allison’s lyrical, well crafted lines owe something to the Desmond playbook which is hardly surprising as she readily acknowledges the profound influence of Brubeck’s long time associate. Art Pepper too is very important to her and there are also hints of Bud Shank, Ronnie Lang and Gary Foster apparent in her work. Talking about Allison’s performances on the CD Trudy Kerr told me, “She has her own unique style and adapted beautifully to the arrangements. I hope to get more opportunities to work with her in the future.” Due to problems with Paul Desmond's estate the CD is not available commercially. It can be ordered from

Seattle is known as the Emerald City of the Pacific Northwest and that is where Allison Neale was born in July 1969, just as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were making history with the very first moon landing. Her father, who was an aeronautics engineer, had been recruited from England by Boeing to work on their 747. From an early age she was exposed to his large jazz collection which included albums by Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Zoot Sims, Art Pepper and many others. “I grew up listening to the music, absorbing it and eventually wanting to play it. I was obsessed with Getz and I still listen to his early Roost recordings with Horace Silver, the Interpretations album with Bob Brookmeyer and The Steamer. I love Montgomery’s playing too which I find completely euphoric. His Movin’ Along is one of my favourites of all time”. Other recordings regularly on her play-list were Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, Dave Brubeck’s Jazz At Oberlin and Eric Dolphy’s Last Date. “Pepper never stopped searching and that’s the bench-mark really.  Paul Desmond’s creativity and musicality is at its peak on Oberlin and I was fascinated by Dolphy’s playing. I also have his biography. I listened to everybody really, especially Sonny Rollins who is a unique, free genius”.   

After her family returned to the UK she began classical training on the flute but from a jazz perspective she is really self-taught –“I began by playing along to my dad’s records using my ear to find what worked best.” Chet Baker, another of Allison’s favourites, was an ‘ear’ player too prompting Gerry Mulligan to observe that Chet knew everything about chords except their names. A very partial list of ‘ear’ players would also include Zoot Sims and Art Pepper. “I love Bobby Jaspar, Frank Wess and James Moody who I saw at Ronnie’s but the flute is more of a doubling instrument. I was about fifteen when I decided to take up the alto because I felt an affinity with it. It’s easier to get an individual sound on the saxophone compared to the flute, possibly because you put the mouthpiece in your mouth making it more of an extension of your voice.

“I did a little playing with my brother Richard who later toured for a while on guitar with Sting and then I auditioned for the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra when I was about sixteen or so”. They did concerts with Lanny Morgan in 1993 and Bobby Shew in 1997 both of which have been recorded. “Lanny had been with Bob Florence so we did a lot of Bob’s amazing charts as well as some of Rob McConnell’s music. He was very good to me. He was encouraging and quite inspiring because he could hear what I was trying to do when we played together. Bobby Shew was great too.” At the same time she was recommended to Bill Ashton for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, often appearing with the band at Ronnie Scott’s. Allison studied at De Montfort University achieving a degree in the Performing Arts and later at the Guildhall School of Music where she attained a post graduate diploma in Jazz and Studio Music. 

These big-band experiences were useful but Allison really wanted to concentrate on performing with a small group - ideally in a quartet with a guitar in the rhythm section which she feels gives her more freedom than a piano would. Rather like Paul Desmond who often performed with Jim Hall and then Ed Bickert, Allison has successfully collaborated with Peter Bernstein and especially Dave Cliff over the years. Cliff was often the go-to-guitarist for Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh during their tours in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. He had studied with Peter Ind who describes him in his Jazz Visions -  Lennie Tristano And His Legacy as someone “who has quietly developed a reputation as a sensitive improviser and accompanist”. Allison recently told me, “Playing and recording with Dave was a very special experience. The feeling of playing alongside him was like putting on a matching pair of gloves – the perfect fit. I and many others regard Dave as our greatest UK guitarist. He is a unique voice in the music so to have spent so many years playing with him was very seminal for me”.

Allison often worked at Ronnie Scott’s, the 606 Club and the Pizza Express where she frequently sat-in with Scott Hamilton over the years. They also worked together at the Concorde Club –“I’m a huge admirer of Scott”. Her first recording as a leader Melody Express took place in 2002 (33jazz103). Accompanied by Dave Cliff, Simon Thorpe (bass) and Matt Skelton (drums) it is a melodic homage to the songbook repertoire featuring Nancy, I Wish I Knew, Stardust, Imagination, How About You and I’ll Never Smile Again. They are all perfect vehicles for her highly stylized lyrical conception. Mark Crooks once told me that repertoire like this “offered a hundred lifetimes of material to explore” and Allison’s subtle performances show why musicians constantly return to these classic harmonies for inspiration. She also includes Gigi Gryce’s Melody Express and Yvette which had been introduced by Stan Getz in 1951. Dave Gelly included this album in his Top Ten Records of the Year in the Guardian.

Her 2013 I Wished On The Moon CD is another example of perfect song selection (Trio Records TR593). In her sleeve-note Allison says her collaboration with her friend vibraharpist Nathaniel Steele here “is one of complete accord”. This is clearly apparent on Art Pepper’s Chili Pepper, a Tea For Two, contrafact and 317 East 32nd. Street, a Manhattan loft address where Lennie Tristano did most of his teaching. It is based on Out Of Nowhere. It’s good to hear numbers like So In Love, How Little We Know and especially Bobby Troup’s lovely You’re Looking At Me which Nat ‘King’ Cole introduced way back in 1949. He revisited it again on his famous After Midnight Sessions in 1956 with Harry Edison and Willie Smith among others. It’s something of a neglected gem and the group achieve a relaxed groove here benefitting from some locked-hands pianism from Leon Greening. Allison and Nathaniel worked together for a while and the billing at jazz clubs was Neale Meets Steele.

In 2014 she began working with multi-instrumentalist Chris Biscoe in a piano-less quartet exploring the repertoire introduced by Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond on their Blues In Time (1957) and Two of a Mind (1963) albums. Chris is heard exclusively on baritone displaying a warm Jeruvian sound on their 2015 CD Then And Now (Trio Records TR 597). His originals Then And Now and Rest Easy based on What’s New and Star Eyes show him to be a composer of note. The inspired interplay throughout between alto and baritone reveals an impressive grasp of counterpoint, a musical form that is largely overlooked these days.

From 2016 along with Nathaniel Steele she organised BopFest at the London Jazz Festival “to showcase and celebrate the talents of our mutual friends and colleagues from our own particular corner of the scene. People like Leon Greening, Steve and Matt Fishwick, Colin Oxley, Mark Crooks and many others. One year the baritone player Richard Shepherd helped me revisit the Birth of the Cool arrangements with Steve Fishwick on trumpet. We used the same instrumentation that Miles Davis did including the french horn and tuba. Another year we recreated the Art Pepper + Eleven charts with Robert Fowler on tenor and clarinet. We also invited Grant Stewart from New York to play with us and just before the pandemic we had Johnny Griffin’s pianist Michael Weiss which was great”.

Her Quietly There CD was released in 2020 on the Ubuntu label (UBU0062) with Peter Bernstein (guitar), Dave Green (bass) and Steve Brown (drums). Once again she concentrates on quality standards together with two jazz originals which had been introduced by Stan Getz. Split Kick based on There Will Never Be Another You came from a 1951 date he did with the composer Horace Silver. He recorded the tricky Tristano-like Motion by Jimmy Raney in 1953. Alto and guitar create an attractive Lee Konitz-Billy Bauer vibe on the theme, leading to a solo sequence which almost reluctantly reveals itself to be a contrafact of You Stepped Out Of A Dream. 

Going forward Allison Neale will continue to work with Chris Biscoe in their piano-less group which they call Two Of A Mind. Her main focus though will be her new piano-based quartet featuring Alex Bryson (piano), Jeremy Brown (bass) and Matt Fishwick (drums) which she hopes to record on the HardBop label in the near future.

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