Geri Allen's Grand River Crossings pays homage to the music and historic example of her hometown of Detroit. It is named for the pre-interstate, 216-mile thoroughfare that connects the Motor City to Lansing and Grand Rapids. For Allen, Grand River signifies many things, among them a rite of passage, crossing the eight-lane street as a young girl, and later attending the famed Cass Technical High School located on it -- the city's shining educational jewel that has graduated more artists, musicians, engineers, architects, and writers than can adequately be summed up here. The album is also the third in a series of standalone, largely solo, piano-based works that began with 2010's Flying Toward the Sound and continued with 2011's A Child Is Born. The program, largely populated with well-known compositions from Motown artists, Detroit jazz icons, fellow Cass Tech alumni, and the pianist, is an exploratory one. Commencing with a physical, busy reading of Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," where she extrapolates on the changes, finding numerous subtleties inside the melody, gives way to a gorgeous, speculative intro to a symbiotic take on Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" before gliding gracefully and elegantly through the various shades and depths in Stevie Wonder's "That Girl." Allen reinvigorates these songs as models for investigation and improvisation. After her brief title interlude, she turns her attention to Roy Brooks' "The Smart Set" with Marcus Belgrave on trumpet. He also guests on her deeply intuitive reading of his own Fantasia-esque "Space Odyssey," from his 1974 classic Gemini. Allen's expansive, inverted harmonic version of Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Baby I Need Your Lovin'" proves that a great jazz musician can unlock the complex secrets from the simplest melody. She proves more than her brilliance; she reveals the sophistication in the layers underneath -- a hallmark of Motown tunes. This is followed by the brief "Itchin' in My Heart," another tune by the team that features saxophonist David McMurray. Allen layers deep blues inside its funky groove. The tenderness in her version of the Supremes' "Stoned Love" is paramount. She exposes the traces of gospel and the black spirituals at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, and reveals the seed of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" in its melody. She simultaneously reflects on the continued struggle for civil rights and the numerous problems currently oppressing Detroit. First there's the aggressive, almost militant reading of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues." It's followed by a confident, extended, harmonically revisioned version of his "Save the Children," which is an exhortation, not a plea. Allen and Belgrave close the set with a breezy duet take on famed jazz arranger -- and native Detroiter -- Gerald Wilson's "Nancy Joe" (sic) from his paramount 1962 set Moment of Truth, revealing the glorious swing in Detroit's jazz tradition. Of her 19 offerings, Grand River Crossings is certainly her most personal. It's also among her very best.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek