Rooted in tradition, duo looks beyond genres

Apr. 25, 2014 @ 12:22 AM

Akua Allrich recalls some advice vocalist Dianne Reeves once gave her: “‘Just listen.’” Allrich’s many vocal influences include Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba, and she frequently performs tribute concerts to those artists. These days she is listening to Abbey Lincoln as well as more pop music. Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” is “in heavy rotation in my house,” Allrich said in a phone interview.

Allrich will be performing with bass player Kris Funn today during the opening day of the inaugural Art of Cool Festival. “If you listen to genres in recent years, the walls have been taken down,” Funn added. “When you listen to hip-hop, you’ll hear elements of rock,” and hip-hop elements in rock, he said.
That openness reflects the spirit of the Art of Cool Festival. Organizers have programmed local and national artists who represent the traditions of jazz, and younger artists who are taking that tradition and translating it to their experiences.
Allrich and Funn are grounded in that tradition. Allrich’s father Agyei Akoto was a founding member of the band Nation. “Musicians were always in our house,” Allrich said. “Music was always in my life because of my dad.” On her website, she states that her parents had such an extensive jazz collection that she did not buy a recording until her college years. Her father taught her piano from age 7, and in college she began singing.
Funn started playing trumpet at age 4, then took up the bass at age 14. His father, Charles Funn, got him his first professional job. “My dad started me on bass around high school,” Funn said. “He’s probably given me the most instruction on bass.”
Allrich is a Washington, D.C., native, and Funn is from Baltimore. They perform extensively in the D.C. area, together and in separate ensembles. They have been working together on projects since they both attended Howard University. “I remember having Akua sing at my wedding,” Funn said. “In my brain I mark that as a point we started working more around town.”
The relationship “happened organically,” Allrich said. “We’ve known each other forever. When you know each other, your music grows together. Kris is an excellent bass player and I trust him with my music.”
Cicely Mitchell, co-founder of the Art of Cool Project and festival, contacted Allrich last summer about performing in the festival, and she “specifically requested Kris Funn,” Allrich said. There will be other examples of cross-pollination at the festival. Chris Fonville, who plays drums for festival artists Butcher Brown, will join Allrich and Funn on stage. Funn also has played on several of trumpeter Christian Scott’s recordings, and he will join Scott during his performance at the festival.
They have Durham connections. Durham native Grady Tate, a drummer and vocalist, was Allrich’s vocal coach. “I give him a lot of credit in terms of bringing out my style,” she said of Tate. “He was the one who talked to me about being present in the moment. … You’re not just singing, you’re telling a story. What you want to give people is an experience.”
Funn has toured with saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and he remembers performing with Garrett in Durham when Tate also was on the bill. “I remember being in an auditorium, and Grady walked in literally like a superstar,” he said. Working in Garrett’s group was “very intense,” Funn said. “He tries to make you uncomfortable and push your limits, to not be afraid to go where you don’t think you can.”
During their set today at Beyu Caffe, Allrich said she hopes musicians will want to sit in. “When we’re on the bandstand, it’s great to have people who want to sit in. … The music grows, everybody grows when you have other people participate.”

Go and Do

WHAT: Akua Allrich and Kris Funn in concert at Art of Cool Festival
WHERE: Beyu Caffe, 335 W. Main St., Durham
WHEN: Today, 10 p.m.
ADMISSION: For Art of Cool Festival tickets, visit