"Was She Happy?" An Inside View of Kassa Overall and Vijay Iyer's Tribute to Geri Allen

Jun 12, 2020

Pianist Geri Allen, born on this day in 1957, was the common bond for countless musicians.

Among them are Vijay Iyer, a sworn disciple, and Kassa Overall, her longtime drummer. Last summer they recorded a duo session that would yield the closing track on Overall’s daring and acclaimed recent album, I Think I’m Good (Brownswood Recordings).

Allen died in 2017, at 60. “Was She Happy (For Geri Allen)” is one of a number of tributes that have cropped up since. But this valedictory piece carries an especially heavy resonance because of the question that it poses, and the influence Allen had on both artists, as a lodestar and a mentor. 

Overall invited a photographer friend, Spencer Ostrander, to document the recording session, which took place on June 24, 2019 at Eric Harland’s GSI Studios in Manhattan. All of the images in this article — part photo essay, part oral history — are by Ostrander, and used with permission. Overall and Iyer spoke recently with me by phone, in separate conversations.

Kassa Overall was a young drummer on the rise when he joined Geri Allen’s band Timeline. The band was broadcast live by WBGO and The Checkout in 2012.

Overall: I played a concert at Columbia [University] with Geri in 2008. And Vijay was there. I was a big Vijay fan, but I had never met him.

Iyer: I actually met him when Geri played with Timeline at the Miller Theater. We knew some people in common; the main person was Rafiq [Bhatia]. They were both at Oberlin together, and Rafiq had studied with me for some years.  

Overall: There was a meet-and-greet afterward, and Vijay was very supportive, he said he liked how I played, and I was ecstatic about it. I remember I said: “Hey man, I really love your music, and I would love to hook up with you, even if you just need somebody to come over and play some patterns, work something out.” And he said, “Sorry, man, I’m pretty busy.” And, like, my shoulders kind of caved in. [laughs] Then he goes: “Naw, I’m just kidding, man — I would love to hook up. Let’s do it.” That was how we first met. Not too long after, he asked me to come and play drums on his and Mike Ladd’s Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project.

Iyer: He was ideal for it. All the different kinds of energy he brought to it, and the range of influences. It was Mike Ladd, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, Guillermo Brown, Liberty Ellman and Okkyung Lee. He fit right in with us; it was really special. He was like a young avatar.

From late 2018 through the summer of 2019, Overall presented a series of concerts commissioned by The Jazz Gallery called Time Capsule, with noted pianists including Jon Batiste, Jason Moran, Kris Davis and Sullivan Fortner.

Overall: I didn’t really think about this until later, but all of those pianists on the Time Capsule series were huge Geri fans. Like, I had never played with Craig Taborn before; I don’t think I’d played with Jason Moran before. But a lot of the conversation was building on what Geri did, and how they were influenced by her.

Vijay: It’s been three years, but we’re all still reeling from her passing.

Overall: Vijay couldn’t make any of the dates for the Time Capsule gigs, but we had been wanting to do something together for a while, and we were both extremely busy in this time. So we decided to just put a date on the books, for us to do something creative together.

Iyer: We had a real bond from working in Holding It Down and some other things, including this spinoff that we started doing, him and me; and Rafiq; and Himanshu Suri, the rapper HEEMS. It was this band calls THUMS UP, with no B. (“Thums Up” is the name of a cola in India.) We first started just playing at The Stone, and then I brought it to the Met, and then we started doing stuff everywhere.

The recording session lasted all day, with no predetermined structure.

Overall: We had no idea, as far as what music we were going to do, or what the goal was to record. We just wanted to get in there and create.

Iyer: Because we had done all this stuff with no bass player, Kassa and I were sort of the core of the rhythm section. And between my left hand and whatever laptop stuff and other sounds he would conjure, there would always be some low-end. We had this real rhythmic rapport that we’ve cultivated over a decade. There’s a lot of detail in it.

Overall: I set up my drums, laptop and vocal effects mic. Vijay had a grand piano, [Fender] Rhodes, and some little electronic thingy, that we didn’t even really know what it was. And we recorded all day, totally improvised. I think we left that day with three hours of recorded music.

Iyer: It was almost like, “You know, we could make a whole album right now.” Just sat down and started creating, and everything just felt like a continuation of what we had already cultivated over those years as a rhythm unit. There’s actually hours more stuff.

Geri Allen was an obvious touchstone for both musicians, but she only became a stated subject of their exploration after a dinner-break conversation.

Overall: When I go to the studio, it’s weird: I don’t have to eat, I don’t get tired, and I just want to keep going. I think we started around 10 a.m. And around 6 p.m., Vijay suggested we go get some food. So we went to this — um, I think it was a Japanese restaurant…

Iyer: I want to say it was Korean food.

Overall: …and we sat and ate, and we were just talking about everything. And we started talking about Geri.

Iyer: She was somebody who we had in common, in a very deep way. He spent years with her, in her band. And I think I just wanted to open up about her, and it was really emotional, like talking about a family member. Not just a towering figure of the music. It was very personal. So it was in that context that I asked him something that haunted me about her.

Overall: It wasn’t out of nowhere, but at some point in us talking about Geri, Vijay asked me if she was happy — you know, in her life. Because she’s a pretty private person, and I spent a lot of time with her on the road and stuff like that. And to be honest, even being as close to her as I was, I didn’t have a definitive answer. So in that moment, I answered that she was on a quest. She was on a journey.

“Was She Happy (For Geri Allen)” features Overall speaking both a question and an answer, against sampled sounds that evoke the ambience of a restaurant.

Iyer: The whole session kind of flowed through us. We have that kind of connection where you just open the door, or open the tap. I don’t remember feeling like there was any effort whatsoever, throughout the entire session. But in that moment, I think we were just sitting with the energy of her. And a certain kind of gratitude, and a certain kind of mourning, trying to make peace with the story.

Overall: When we recorded that, it was just Vijay on Rhodes and me on vocals. I added the drums later. In my little vocal rig, I have ability to shift the vocal frequency. It’s really a formant shifter. I had been experimenting with it in the Time Capsule series. I was trying to find ways to connect with the audience. Because if we’re playing fully spontaneous and also abstract, for me I’m like, how can I still touch the people if this stuff is over their heads? I was starting to get into these narratives where I’d have like a high-pitched voice and a low-pitched voice and just like creating these little conversations. It was really a good thing to add to an improvisation because it almost got into the realm of theater. So that’s kind of how that was. All in the moment.

Iyer: It’s the sort of thing where most of what happened was beyond the reach of language. And in that sense, it felt like the recording session for my duo album with Wadada [Leo Smith]. It had a similar energy, where it didn’t even require intention. Witnessing and receiving; that’s what it felt like. So I guess that makes it some kind of prayer. I don’t know what else to call it.

Overall: The thing with the cutlery, there’s actually a weird poem in it. When it starts out, you hear voices and a bunch of people eating like at a restaurant or something. And then it cuts, and it’s just one person eating. It’s a kind of like metaphorical poem about the loneliness of being on some kind of quest.

Iyer: If you really stop making this about playing, about demonstrating, about achieving — which is the playerly kind of mentality that a lot of us get caught up with when we’re on the gig or whatever. A certain kind of showiness, like performing virtuosity. When you take that off the table, what’s left? What's left is actually something much more vulnerable, and emotional, and of-the-moment, and delicate. It wasn’t about, ‘This is a sick beat,’ or something. [laughs] It was actually just like, ‘I'm not even sure what this is, but it is.’

Vijay Iyer will perform a livestream at The Village Vanguard on June 20 and 21, with bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Jeremy Dutton.

Purchase music by Kassa Overall, including his latest remix album, Shades of Flu, at his Bandcamp page.