Nobody Knows what Britney Knows

Willem De Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, 1954.

Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, featuring Geri Allen
Soul Note : 1988

GA, piano; GH, bass; PM, drums.

One of the great versions of this classic Ornette Coleman ballad. Is it ironic that the song is rendered on piano, an instrument that Coleman studiously avoided for the better part of his career? Is it any less ironic in that it’s performed by a woman? Or more so? Or does it just highlight the stone-cold awesomeness of this song that it can have its context changed so radically without effecting its essence? Whatever the case, the author dug it. Geri Allen recalls: “Ornette came to the studio to hear the ‘Lonely Woman’ playback and liked it! That meant everything.”

Haden and Motian both had twenty years on Allen at the time of this recording, but she steals the show. Her work in the ’80s was a major influence on pianists like Vijay Iyer and (at least to our ears) Ethan Iverson. With her skillful deployment of “in” and “out” modes, her tough angularity and unsentimental lyricism, she made the traditional/avant debates of the decade seem irrelevant. Although this trio performed together for many years, Allen has never entirely fulfilled her early promise to rewrite jazz piano in her own image. In some ways she’s become like Herbie Nichols, who’s covered on Etudes: a player’s player.

The original version of this tune may conjure noirish images of Edward Hopper’s woman alone in a movie theatre. In the the spirit of sistahood, we’d like to dedicate this more modern rendition to the Lonely Woman of 2007. This melody stretches that far.

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-After a slow Fall, we’re returning to posting new tracks every Monday and Wednesday. (Your money back if we fail to maintain this schedule over the long haul.)

-The entries will mostly be shorter than previous – the etude format, if you like. Let us know what you think of the change.

Category Charlie Haden, Geri Allen, Paul Motian

11 Responses to Nobody Knows what Britney Knows

  1. One of the most beautiful songs ever written, in my opinion. I’ve tried playing it on piano before, could never make it work, so it’s nice to hear Geri do it so well.

    I love Charlie’s solo-he has a very interesting sound on the bass, it strikes me as being more focused and concentrated, whereas Ron Carter, for example has a very expansive sound.

    I just picked up year of the Dragon by the same trio, it’s a great record.

  2. I am a devoted reader of your continually thought provoking posts. In the spirit of provoking inquiry and taking the opportunity to educate your audience. I might suggest that your recent post also credit the painter Willem DeKooning as the maker of the image you utiilized and maybe further the context of your choice by citing the date the painting was executed.

    Thank you and please continue!

  3. Thanks for the comment, Derbyseville, and for the compliment, Wally. If you leave your cursor arrow still, over the art, for a long moment, the attribution info should appear (I’ve since added the year). Not sure if that’s the best way to do it; it’s certainly the least obtrusive. As someone who is rather addicted to reading wall tags at museums, I sometimes find it freeing NOT to know what I’m looking at, at least right away.

  4. Yes! Geri is a big influence, and I love this record.

  5. If I may pick nits, if Motian and Haden were 20 years older than Geri Allen when they made the recording, they’re probably still 20 years older today. :)

    Thanks for keeping the posts coming.

  6. Hi, I am crazy (I mean “crazy”) about “Lonely Woman”. If anyone’s interested, here is the full list of versions in my possession:


    (great blog by the way!)

    (and I mean Destination Out, of course …)

  7. okay, I’ll (meaninglessly and pointlessly) throw out a contrarian sentiment. Ugh, this is so altogether literal and lacking in imagination. Motian and Haden largely recapitulate the original recording’s rhythm section feel and Allen is completely and totally lost in her solo. Her statement of the head has a lovely clarity and spareness, granted. The overall feeling for me is bereft of anything like the impact of OC’s SOJTC heart-rending rendering. Obviously I reveal my own shortcomings as much as anything when I say the direction of some late ’80s into ’90s jazz was too thoroughly slick, emotionally pale and oh-so-suave and smooth. By the time this track is over it’s like nothing at all happened. Mailed in, basically.


  8. peter – obviously disagree with you here but contrarian sentiments always more than welcome, especially when they’re so thoughtful.

  9. Forgive what may sound like counter-heresy – but imagine if you’d never heard Ornette’s original? Indeed, I was young and innocent enough at the time of this release (17, I think) that this was the version I heard first. To me it was more than just a great take – it was a defining moment of my callow life. When I heard the original, a year or so later, I was sort of surprised at how brash and extroverted it seemed by comparison; it took a while for me to get used to it. Perhaps one version overdetermines another. If I’d heard them in reverse order, maybe I’d have been surprised at how uneventful this one was. But I think it’s clear that Geri worked hard to sculpt her own very different approach on it – somehow not even *needing* to imitate the original – and that’s why I think it still mystifies.

  10. I’ll listen to it some more.


  11. I would love to hear this trio do a whole album of Herbie Nichols compositions. If they checked their diaries now, they should be on course to mark what would have been his 90th birthday (January 3 2009).