Those who cheered Keith Jarrett's improvisationally rich piano performance at the Wiltern Theatre this past Sunday would do well to check out pianist Geri Allen's run this week at Catalina Bar & Grill. Allen's opening set Tuesday showed she shares Jarrett's far-reaching sense of exploration, though she possesses a decidedly different, but equally valid style.
Like Jarrett, Allen takes standard material and fashions it in her own image. Her introduction to "Beautiful Friendship" came in lush, romantic tones that only hinted at the familiar theme. From there, her reading took an intense turn as she soloed over bassist Ralph Armstrong's expansive support and drummer Lenny White's open timekeeping.
Sweeping chordal statements gave way to swirling runs. Two-handed unisons, spread over a double octave, made for particularly emphatic phrases. Periods of unsettled dissonance fell away to reveal touching lyricism.
While melody and romance figure prominently in Jarrett's play, they are only part of Allen's arsenal. More often, her solos took unsettled turns as she explored the dark side of being as well as the light. On "Ole Folks," she found room for both, opening with stately phrases above a moody bass line, and closing on an upbeat samba pace.
Allen's own compositions provide the framework for even more intensity, witnessed here by the lightning tempo of "RTG." Her "Feed the Fire," with its attractive, circular theme line, cleverly accelerated into a fiery version of Jackie McLean's bop anthem "Dig."
White, recently criticized in a New York Times story as a player who sold out his mainstream heritage to join the commercial, Miles Davis-inspired fusion movement, provided ambitious timekeeping in this acoustic setting. His varied series of snare accents during "RTG" was an unbridled display of inventiveness. Armstrong provided a bass sound that had all the qualities of an NFL lineman: big and beefy, yet fast and agile. And he's always a team player.
Unlike Jarrett, Allen doesn't stand dramatically at the piano or voice an "oooh" or an "ahhh" at her own playing. And she definitely makes more demands on her listeners. But her passion and improvisational feeling are every bit as deep, and marked with equal personality.
* The Geri Allen Trio plays Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; tonight-Sunday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; $12 tonight, Sunday; $15 Friday-Saturday. Information: (213) 466-2210.