It’s the special qualities of Karrin Allyson’s instantly recognizable delivery — the careful attention to words, the phrases molded with intelligence and the overarching desire to tell a story — that set her apart.
Whether she’s singing about poet Robert Frost or a lover’s embrace, her special warmth, depth and honesty catapult the two-time Grammy-nominated artist into the same august company as her idols Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson and Dinah Washington.
Allyson, who appears at Yoshi’s on Wednesday and Jazz at Filoli on June 29, didn’t initially intend to become a singer. Her mother, who was a musician, started her out on piano. But since her mom also conducted the choir in her Nebraska hometown, young Allyson also ended up singing in church.
“She said she could always count on me to open my mouth and sing,” Allyson said in a recent phone interview.
After her parents divorced, her mother moved to Oakland to serve as dean of women’s studies at Mills College. There, Allyson had the lead in two plays at Holy Names High School, and discovered popular singer-songwriters such as Carole King, Carly Simon, Janis Ian, Roberta Flack, Melissa Manchester and Joni Mitchell.
“I fell in love with songs that told stories,” she says. “After I began singing, a friend said, ‘You know, you should listen to yourself. You really have something there.’ A little encouragement goes a long way for those who like performing, so that’s when I started to do more of it.”
While earning her degree in classical piano, Allyson got a “little restaurant gig” playing and singing for five hours at a time. She also sang in an all-girls rock ’n’ roll band and wedding bands, and took solo gigs. She even started her own little jazz combo — anything to make money.
Eventually, she moved to Kansas City to build her jazz career. In 1990, she recorded her first album. A woman from San Francisco who heard her sing, bought a CD and convinced former KJAZ radio DJ Stan Dunn to give it airplay. Then the phone started ringing.
Soon she was introduced to Concord Records founder Carl Jefferson, who reissued her self-produced album in 1992. Her latest CD, “Imagina: Songs of Brazil,” is the 11th Concord Jazz issue listed at www.karrin.com.
“By relaying messages in a positive and healthy way, I want to have people at a concert feel better than when they came in,” she says. “I want to bring them together and make them feel united in some way. Or just have a special quiet moment to themselves. It’s all about the joy,” she says.
IF YOU GO
Where: Yoshi’s, 1330 Fillmore St., San Francisco
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: $10 to $20
Contact: (415) 655-5600 or www.yoshis.com
Note: She also performs at 1:30 p.m. June 29 at Filoli, 86 Cañada Road, Woodside. Tickets are $60. Call (650)364-8300, ext. 508.