Personal jazz, with a purpose
By Jess Righthand
Friday, June 15, 2012
When singer Akua Allrich graduated from Howard University’s music program in 2000, she found herself disenchanted with the music industry.
“I didn’t want to be in a smoky club being a struggling artist,” she says. “I wanted to have a family.”
So that’s what she did. In the several subsequent years, Allrich gave up performing, got married and had two children. She also earned her master’s degree in social work and held a variety of jobs.
“I tried all kinds of things, but it just wasn’t working out,” Allrich says.
After almost a decade away from music, she decided to return to the stage. Three years and two albums later, the native Washingtonian has no shortage of gigs, including headlining tonight at the first of this summer’s free Going Out Guide Weekend concerts at Carter Barron Amphitheatre.
Allrich considers herself first and foremost a jazz singer, but she also incorporates neo-soul and elements of R&B and reggae into her arrangements and original songs.
“I think my music is kind of indicative of what’s happening with jazz musicians in general, and actually probably all musicians of my generation,” she says. “We were raised around so many different genres of music, it’s almost impossible not to infuse them into whatever specific genre we’re creating in.”
At first, Allrich says, she was hesitant about using too much popular material for fear that her tried-and-true jazz fans wouldn’t take her as seriously.
“But,” she says, “my experience has been as soon as I open up and sing the music that I’ve written and, you know, soul music, the response is overwhelming. I guess over the last three years I’ve let go of my own fears and put different pieces in my shows, and people enjoy it.”
That journey toward allowing many influences to inform her work is represented in Allrich’s 2010 album, “A Peace of Mine.” It’s an eclectic collection, including such standards as “All the Things You Are” and “Black Orpheus” as well as such groove-heavy originals as “Gypsy Lover” and “Hard to Get.” The tunes are unabashedly joyful. At times, Allrich’s voice reveals hints of India.Arie; at others, it recalls Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.
Her new album, “Uniquely Standard: Akua Allrich Live” — which will be available hot off the presses when she performs at Carter Barron — gives jazz top billing. The album is a compilation of recordings from concerts at Bohemian Caverns and THEARC in Southeast Washington. Many are jazz standards made famous by Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba, two of Allrich’s biggest influences to whom she pays tribute every year in a concert at Bohemian Caverns. Their music was played frequently at home when Allrich was a child (her father, Agyei Akoto, is an accomplished musician), and she admires the vocalists for making art with purpose.
“Nina and Miriam were both very passionate about standing up for the civil and human rights of African people in America and on the continent of Africa, and their music clearly spoke to this,” Allrich says. They are “the personification of purpose, meaning and fervor.”
With her busy performance schedule, a full-time job as a schoolteacher and family demands, it isn’t often that Allrich gets three or four hours at the keyboard to write or practice.
But she remains upbeat about making it work.
“I always vocalize every morning, and before a show comes up, and I try and vocalize throughout the day,” she says. “Even when I’m teaching I try to kind of breathe and sing what I’m saying. I just try to infuse it in everything that I’m doing. . . . It’s a lot, but I try and find the time.”