Allison Neale: picking up the thread

    The woodwind player is one of many who have embraced the modern mainstream repertoire that was eclipsed by the expansions of the 60s and 70s

    Allison Neale. Photo © Brian Payne

    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 Allison Neale when Trudy Kerr sent me a copy of her 2018 Take Five CD, a tribute to Paul Desmond (Jazzizit jitcd1880). Her lyrical, well-crafted lines owe something to the Desmond playbook; this is hardly surprising given she readily acknowledges the profound influence of Brubeck’s long-time associate. Art Pepper, too, is very important to her and hints of Bud Shank, Ronnie Lang and Gary Foster are also 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.”

    Allison was born in Seattle, “the Emerald City of the Pacific Northwest”, in July 1969, just as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were making history with the very first moon-landing. Her father, 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, 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 playlist 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 in jazz 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 15 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 16 or so”. The MYJO did concerts with Lanny Morgan in 1993 and Bobby Shew in 1997, both of which were 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.

    ‘Playing and recording with Dave Cliff 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’

    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. She feels the guitar gives her more freedom than a piano would. Rather like Paul Desmond, who often performed with Jim Hall and then with 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 has often worked at Ronnie Scott’s, the 606 Club and the Pizza Express; at the latter she has frequently sat-in with Scott Hamilton over the years. They also worked together at the Concorde Club, in Eastleigh. She says: “I’m a huge admirer of Scott”.

    Her first recording as a leader, Melody Express, took place in 2002 (33jazz103). Featuring Dave Cliff, Simon Thorpe (bass) and Matt Skelton (drums) it’s a melodic homage to the songbook repertoire, featuring Nancy, I Wish I Knew, Stardust, Imagination, How About You and I’ll Never Smile Again. These are all perfect vehicles for her highly stylised, 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 the 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 the vibraharpist Nathaniel Steele here “is one of complete accord”. This is clearly apparent on Art Pepper’s Chilli 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 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 Neale group achieve a relaxed groove benefiting 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 pianoless quartet exploring the repertoire introduced by Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond on their Blues In Time (1957) and Two Of A Mind (1963) albums. On the 2015 CD with Neale called Then And Now (Trio Records TR 597), Chris is heard exclusively on baritone, displaying a warm Jeruvian sound. His originals Then And Now and Rest Easy (based respectively 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 style often overlooked in jazz 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 were introduced by Stan Getz. The jazz originals are Split Kick (based on There Will Never Be Another You and from a 1951 date Getz did with the composer Horace Silver) and the tricky, Tristano-like Motion (recorded by Jimmy Raney in 1953). On the latter the 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.

    Looking ahead, Allison says she will continue to work with Chris Biscoe in their pianoless 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.