One of the frustrations of being a jazz fan is that there are SO MANY great artists that get overlooked. Sometimes because they don’t live in NYC, other times because they don’t tour incessantly, or just because there’s no defined niche for them. Pianist Michael Jefry Stevens falls into all three traps, and that is why we’re doing a special focus on him. We’ve got five, count ‘em, five different albums, and they are all quite different from each other, going from outside to in to back out again with various artists. Check them out!
Trio Generations consists of Stevens with Joe Fonda/b and Emil Gross/dr performing some left of center sounds that are high on improvisation and interplay. Tenor saxist Lily White (!) brings a thick sound to the most swingin and upbeat tunes on “Side Effects” and “Boot Camp” while evocative moods are explored in trio fashion on “Parallel Lines.” Kinetic conversations are in abundance on “Full Figure” and “Song For My Mother” while glorious melancholy is brought out by Fonda’s bowed bass and Stevens’ plucking on “Trio Generations.” Explorative.
Bassist Joe Fonda co-leads with Stevens along with Herb Robertson/tp and Harvey Sorgen/dr on a concert from 2012 that captures the band touring to celebrate 20 years together. The team flows with a post bop that hints of Herbie Hancock circa Maiden Voyage on the rolling “Polymorphous” and “ What Do You Think” that features Robertson’s thoughtful trumpet. He mutes his horn which makes for supple work with Stevens on “My Song” while the two leaders flow like the Merced River on “The Gospel Truth” and “A Summer’s Morning.” Open and fresh.
Stevens at his most explorative is when he joins with saxist Esa Pietila and cellist Juho Laitinen for assertive and atmospheric sounds that create long sepian shadows.There’s some thick tenor work on”Choral” while deep musings penetrate deep into magma on “Improvisation No. 1” and “2.” Film noir atmospheres are felt from piano and tenor on “Mosaic” while cello and piano both get a spot in the sunlight on “The Wall” and “Improvisation-Solo Piano” respectively. Communication is key here.
Stevens then teams up with acoustic guitarist Jon Hemmerson for some flights of duet fancy. There is a three part “Amber Suite” that mixes some old world classical sounds with free form dialogues. A two part “Blue Piece” is highly kinetic, while “Andrea” gives some room for the romantic side of the two. Veering on the crossroads between folk, modern classical and jazz.
Just when you think you’ve got Stevens pegged as a progressive guy, he throws the switch and turns into Dave Frishberg! He leads a trio with Zack Page/b and Rick Dilling/dr and has the hip and sly voiced Wendy Jones deliver his own tunes and lyrics (along with some other wordsmiths). You get a seductive samba on “Reborn” a dreamy “Lost Love” with Jones going it alone with piano, some cleverly elastic vocal deliveries on “Borderline” and a slinky “When I First Met You” that is a pure joy. Then, rich rhymes and reasons that are up there with the best composers like Lorraine Feather shine on “Losing Streak” and the wistful “Only Love.” Who is this guy that can go from Muhal Abrams to Bob Dorough? I like him!