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In December, at a private event in Singapore, former President Barack Obama said, “I’m absolutely confident that, for two years, if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything.” His point echoed the final words that veteran jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson wrote in the liner notes to Some of That Sunshine, the 2018 album that marked her emergence as a powerful songwriter (after establishing herself as a skilled interpreter of other writers’ songs over the previous 25 years). She wrote, “I have long felt that if humans could really address our female/male equality and respect issues, so many other things would fall into place.”
An important step toward gender equality in the United States was taken on August 18, 1920, when, following a decades-long struggle, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, securing for women the right to vote. On Shoulder to Shoulder: Centennial Tribute to Women’s Suffrage (Entertainment One Music), Allyson and her newly formed all-female sextet pay homage to the heroes of the suffrage movement — among them, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Carrie Chapman Catt — with fresh, improvisation-rich arrangements of 19th- and early-20th-century propagandistic tunes.
Working with several producers, including veteran composer and arranger John Daversa, Allyson embarked on a fascinating fact- and song-finding mission to offer a balanced view of the movement. The resulting album is massive in scope and personnel. “Putting together an album like Shoulder to Shoulder was a daunting task,” says Allyson, a longtime activist who has helped raise money for Habitat for Humanity and numerous environmental causes. “I’m grateful to have been one of its many moving parts. As far as the music goes, John and I put our heads together and researched the songs of the relevant eras — from the ’20s back to the 1840s. Googling and using good old-fashioned books, we sought out famous suffragette marches, hymns and speeches that would provide touchpoints for the long journey.
“Typical of our process was the track that establishes the essential storyline of the album. ‘The Great Convention’ was a speech given at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, which marked the official start of the movement. The lyrics were originally set to a German song, but John and I wrote fresh chords and a memorable new melody, with John providing the many moods of the moment via his string arrangement. To give the aura of a multitude of female voices, I invited my friends Madeleine Peyroux and Denise Donatelli to take the first two verses, with me following them.”
One of Allyson and Daversa’s chief reference sources was folk singer Elizabeth Knight’s 1958 collection Songs of the Suffragettes. Augmenting the stark material from that album with jazzy textures and emotional resonance, Allyson takes a swinging romp through “Columbia’s Daughters” and offers a solemn, gospel-tinged rendition of “The Promised Land.” A heartfelt plea to men to join the cause, “Columbia’s Daughters” was written in 1884 for a meeting of the Women’s Suffrage Association of Massachusetts. “The Promised Land” was published in literature distributed by the National-American Women’s Suffrage Convention of 1891.
Allyson’s alternately sensitive and hard-swinging sextet — trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Helen Sung, bassist Endea Owens, drummer Allison Miller and alto saxophonist Mindi Abair — provides the foundation for all of the music on Shoulder to Shoulder. Because each member of the ensemble is a busy performer in her own right, the tracks came together piecemeal via a swirl of phone calls, exchanged digital files, rehearsals and tracking with whoever was available in New York City on any given day.
One of the album’s most remarkable aspects is the balance it strikes between suffragettes and their opponents. On “Anti-Suffrage Rose,” Allyson defers to another special guest, emerging jazz vocalist Veronica Swift, and relies on another of Daversa’s sweeping string arrangements to reflect on the movements’ foes, symbolized by those wearing the color red (while the suffragists wore white).
The same week Obama spoke in Singapore, Allyson was in Northampton, Massachusetts, headlining a weekly jazz series. At her gig, she performed “Way Down Below” and “Big Discount,” the two self-penned compositions that close Shoulder to Shoulder. The original version of “Big Discount,” a wry, incisive look at traditional wage disparities between men and women, appears on Some of That Sunshine. The new version incorporates a thematically related rap by hip-hop artist and activist Rapsody. “Way Down Below,” a moody meditation that addresses racial and gender-based inequality in the present day, features violinist Regina Carter underscoring the impassioned lyrics and a spoken-word intro by one of Allyson’s heroes, Roberta Flack.
Shoulder to Shoulder is partially a theatrical production with a roster of renowned guest artists who are sometimes used in unconventional ways. While Kurt Elling and Allyson pair nicely on the playful duet “Winning the Vote,” other guests provide spoken-word speeches that are interlaced between the album’s musical numbers. For instance, Harry Belafonte delivers dialogue that originated with Frederick Douglass, Roseanne Cash does likewise with Susan B. Anthony, Lalah Hathaway with Sojourner Truth, and Peter Eldridge with Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Elihu Root.
“Just as some of our greatest singers showcased their oratory abilities, I felt that I was acting as much as singing,” Allyson says. “Every song is a vignette. I kept wondering, who am I? Am I Susan B or Elizabeth or a lesser-known suffragette trying to get by in life? I got to inhabit all of those amazing people and bring voice to their visions to ensure that their work carries on. The idea was to make people curious about the process and the history of women’s voting issues, so that we never forget to cherish the right to vote. With the election coming up this year, this truth is more crucial for our democracy than ever.” - Jonathan Widran