John Allee Dives Full Fathoms Into Shakespeare And Jazz On BARDFLY
"Now entertain conjecture of a time - maybe it's 1958, maybe it's 1598, maybe it's today..." With those words, spoken slyly over a cool, hipster jazz groove, JOHN ALLEE draws us into BARDFLY, an otherworldly, super-literate and supremely swinging realm that finds the veteran stage and TV actor, singer-songwriter and all-around creative hyphenate fusing his dual lifelong passions for all things Shakespeare and jazz.
Showcasing his wide array of talents as a vocalist, composer, lyricist and dramatic performer, the eclectic 13-track set - in which he assumes the persona of Feste "The Bardfly" Johnson - mines compelling verses from a wide swath of the Bard's canon from Othello to Henry IV as a foundation for everything from blues, ballads and hymns to compelling spoken word and swingin' ditties. An award-winning author and composer of musical plays, the Los Angeles based Allee composed all the music for BARDFLY. While he set some of Shakespeare's lyrics directly to music, on seven pieces he added words and phrases to dazzling dramatic effect, essentially becoming a co-writer with his muse. Allee also wrote the clever "Bardfly Blues," the opening number which serves as an invitation into the overall experience.
The collection finds Allee ensembling with a quintet of some of the most storied jazz cats in L.A., including MAHESH BALASOORIYA (longtime touring pianist with Arturo Sandoval), drummer AARON MCLENDON (Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox, Taylor Eigsti), bassist DOMINIC THIROUX (Kamasi Washington, Renee Olstead), saxophonist JAVIER VERGARA (aka the "Mexican Coltrane," who has played extensively with Poncho Sanchez) and trumpeter MATT VON RODERICK (Brad Mehldau, John Medeski).
Allee's first professional "collaboration" with the Bard came via an LA Opera production of Benjamin Britten's musical adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Gordon Davidson in which he played an airborne Puck. Among dozens of stage credits, Allee's career since has included performances in other Shakespeare plays. In fact, BARDFLY grew organically out of Allee's role as Twelfth Night's Feste the Clown in a theatrical mashup called Barfly Shakespeare, presented at a night club in North Hollywood. He was tasked by the director with coming up with a jazz club vibe for the tunes and first landed on "The Wind and the Rain," which he recast as an easy swinging, hepster strut. He would later choose that tune as the perfect closer to the album.
"People who are perhaps not so well-versed in Shakespeare may not know this," the singer says, "but all of his plays had music in them. And he included lyrics to many songs in his works. When I first started playing around with his lyrics, I realized that they are almost like beat poetry -- they sound so cool when you swing them. He was also a shameless adapter of songs. So taking his lead, I gave myself permission to adapt his songs, sometimes even grabbing little snippets of lyrics he references in a scene and developing them into full blown songs," as Allee did with the penultimate ballad "Never Come Again," based on Ophelia's scattered ramblings in her famous mad scene from Hamlet.
"Shakespeare was all about dichotomy," says Allee "light and dark, tragic and comic, lowly and exalted." And it's a blast to follow the highs, lows and dynamic rhythmic variations from track to track, scene by scene. Allee caps his opener by segueing soulfully into the torchy, jazzy blues of "Samingo," then eases into the gently reflective piano driven ballad "Until the Break of Day." It's not all gloomy for Ophelia, as Allee sends up another of her well-worn catches with dazzling original lyrics, turning "Tomorrow is St. Valentine's Day" into a witty and playful romp as he duets with Von Roderick's snazzy trumpet over a marching, swinging New Orleans beat. Allee keeps the NOLA magic boppin' on the high octane "Philomel/Hold Thy Peace," a medley of weaving spiders and thorny hedgehogs.
Allee is all about romantic jazz with "Mistress Mine" (wistfully singing the famous line "present mirth hath present laughter") and "Sigh No More," sweet, reflective ballads that showcase the gentler side of his artistry. Taking its title to heart, the singer roars in witty talk-sing conversation with the horns through the sexy, seductive prowling of "The Hungry Lion." "Green Willow," a hypnotic ballad based on Desdemona's famous prescient lament in Othello, finds Allee artfully bridging the worlds of jazz and musical theatre. "Full Fathom Five" is a melancholy hymn of varying tempos with a whimsical 5/4 coda. One of BARDFLY's most buoyant numbers is the bold and brassy "Heigh Ho the Holly," a straight-ahead jazz tune that showcases the instrumental soloists' virtuosic chops over some tricky changes. True to the dichotomous nature of the project, he follows this with the solemn yet somehow life affirming ballad "Come Away Death" before taking us out on a high note.
John Allee is an American actor, singer and songwriter, best known for playing the role of Pasha on the Golden Globe-nominated Starz limited series Flesh and Bone (2015), and for his stage work in Los Angeles. His theatre career has included performances from Off-Broadway to Pre-Broadway to Europe, the Soviet Union and the West Coast, including such top venues as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, The Wiltern Theatre, The Mark Taper Forum, Pasadena Playhouse, Arizona Theatre Company, San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House and Houston's Wortham Theatre Center. Allee is a recipient of the ASCAP/Sammy Cahn Award for excellence in lyric writing (past winners include John Mayer) and his music has been featured Off-Broadway, in regional theatre, and on TV. Recording under the "nom-de-pop" Johnnye Allee, he released his folk-pop/roots rock driven debut Unless It Isn't in 2007, which American Songwriter magazine called "a stunning suite of songs" and in 2016 dropped the piano and vocal album Expect Delays.