I was fortunate to have met Geri Allen in soon after she’d arrived to New York City in the early 1980s, having graduated from Howard University. I interviewed her for National Public Radio and DownBeat, for which she talked with one of her heros, pianist Hank Jones (they were both from Detroit, but generations apart; that discussion is in my book Future Jazz). I heard Geri often, as a leader and side-person, at clubs in NYC; in quartet with Ornette Coleman at the SFJazz Festival where the entr’acte featured a body-piercer (that episode is in Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz), and most recently in trio with Terri Lyne Carrington and David Murray (as a “power trio,” they recorded Perfection). She received many honors; the Jazz Journalists Association presented Geri Allen with a Jazz Hero Award in 2016 for her work as an educator in Pittsburgh and before that at Howard, New England Conservatory and University of Michigan.
Among my favorites of her recordings are The Printmakers, her debut as a leader; Open on All Sides in the Middle, featuring her mentor Marcus Belgrave among other aces; Etudes with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (if I recall right, I wrote the liner notes), and and Eyes in the Back of Your Head, with Ornette.
Someone told me — it might have been Geri herself — that she’d been very nervous to work with Ornette, as she had been to engage with Hank Jones; she was extremely self-effacing. But when they first met to play the iconoclastic saxophonist leaned over her shoulder as she sat the piano and quietly said something like, “Don’t worry, just play, I’ll take care of everything.”
She had deep regard for her predecessors and elders, serving greatly to restore luster to the music and artistic reputations of Mary Lou Williams and Erroll Garner, among others. Since 2015, Geri Allen had been performing along with NEA Jazz Master McCoy Tyner; Sánta captured them together three months ago.
Of the photographer: He’s Transylvanian-born and a globetrotter, who shoots wherever he goes and has especially fascinating galleries of images of gypsy life and undeveloped parts in his native land. Sánta István Csaba’s exhibition of close-up portraits of jazz greats, which I wrote of in February when they were hung at Müpa Budapest art center in Budapest, is currently being mounted for display at the Bucharest Jazz Festival, Romania.