Drimala DR 02-347-06

The Survivor’s Suite
Jazz’halo 015

Part of the underappreciated generation of expressive improvisers, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, 52, is one of those musicians who plied his craft in the fallow years between the 1960s heyday of experimental jazz and before the current free music uptick.

Now co-leader of the peripatetic Fonda-Stevens bands with bassist Joe Fonda, Stevens is a committed, no-holds-barred improviser. His technically imposing stylings draw as much — if not more — from the severe formalism of early modern classical composers as the jazz tradition.

Both AERCINE, a studio quintet effort, and THE SURVIVOR’S SUITE, a live solo disc, are distinctive examples of his art. Although both are technically impressive, on scrupulous analysis it seems that his monochromic approach often needs the supplemental colors of other, brighter instruments to be put in bolder relief.

That’s why the quintet session is so impressive. Another reason is that on the CD Stevens’ trio, filled out by drummer Harvey Sorgen — who also produced and mastered the discs — and bassist Steve Rust, is joined by an usual front line. Violinist Mark Feldman has worked in every medium from Nashville studios to John Zorn’s formal compositions, while trumpeter Herb Robertson has been a favorite brassman for leaders ranging from altoist Tim Berne to bassist Barry Guy.

Although all the music is completely improvised it also phases in references from impressionism and Eastern European airs on one hand and hard bop and the Cool school at other times. Sometimes, in fact, Stevens’ touch appears to be a weird amalgam of Lennie Tristano’s and Dave Burrell’s. Then on something like “The Shokoe Slip” he will turn pure hard bopper, complete with double-timed key clipping. Brassy plunger work from Robertson and romantic triple and double stopping from Feldman in the virtuosoic Jascha Heifetz tradition mute the harsh keyboarding until the entire tune explodes into high pitched cacophony.

Alternately, “As I Was Saying” features dark, fine-boned pianisms, as Stevens ranges all over the tune with underscored cadenzas of altered fantasias. Rust and Sorgen stick to straight jazz time, while the trumpeter produces brassy lip farts and the violinist shapely, wiggling mellow sweeps.

There’s “Roundup”, which seems to have escaped from an upscale roadhouse, situated midway between the Red Neck and Urban parts of a Southern city. With a theme that sounds itchingly familiar, Stevens tries out some rollicking modern barrelhouse piano that mixes with some bleached Jungle stylings from Robertson. The brassman’s muted grace notes then comment on Feldman’s clear, legato, but very speedy, runs. Robertson appears to be working the inside of his valves with buzzing shakes and ascending runs, while the fiddler slides out notes so sizzlingly quick and so sharp that he sometimes goes flat as he touches many strings at once. The drummer contributes press rolls, with the final ferment built up with triple-time, tremolo piano pounding. By that point everyone is in such a state that someone shouts out a loud “gee haw!”. Now when’s the last time you heard that on an improv CD?

Elsewhere, romantic themes share space with Balkan echoes; banjo-like plucks from fiddle meet high-pitched almost celeste-like sound from the piano; and when Robertson sounds out what could be traditional muted Miles-like lines, bassman Rust

Rust follows along as a dependable Paul Chambers.

If the quintet disc shows what can be accomplished when sympathetic associates gather, the other CD shows the vulnerability of having to celebrate an important milestone by yourself.

A 50th birthday present to himself, the session was recorded in Brugge, Belgium at the end of Stevens’ first-ever solo piano tour. That it’s an impressive display of keyboard skill is unquestionable. But, unfortunately, freed from the leavening jazz-inflections of other players, the pianist’s classical impressionism mixed with hyper romantic Bill Evansisms and indulgent Keith Jarrettisms become paramount.

You notice this most of all in the so-called jazzier tunes. Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now” is given a florid reading that, even with a hint of stride, seems to extract the composer’s angularity and substitute even temperament and too many notes. “The Search” showcases echoes of more down-to-earth and stalwart pianists like McCoy Tyner and Wynton Kelley. However the double-timing decorative curlicues from the left hand and powerful, note-ringing pressure from the right don’t really turn the restrained syncopation into anything more than a pianist’s showcase.

It appears that nearly every skill and technique extant makes it’s appearance on the more than 33-minute title track. Light-fingered, introductory, right-handed motifs allow the theme to be advanced with strong-armed emphasized tremolos and occasional inside-the-piano forays. As elaborations of the theme are repeated and circled, sustained pedal action gives significance to the output. The overall effect is the sound of variations on variations instead of forward motion. Midway through the five linked sections, the hint of blues-like melisma appears, with the very trebly top of the keys tinkled, but that soon is subsumed under something that could as easily arise from Rachmoninov’s emotionalism as anything Evans or Jarrett played. Moving all over the frame and soundboard, notes are paced largo to andante, prior to the entire sequence almost fading into a New Agey mist. More hushed, the coda first reprises the theme then forms a timbre that seems to be informed more by 19th century recital standards than anything in the North American jazz/improv tradition.

Piano devotees and Stevens’ enthusiasts may give THE SURVIVOR’S SUITE and all its rigorous pianisms a higher grade. But most will prefer Stevens’ creations served up with the garnish provided from other players.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Aercine: 1. Twofold Twice 2. The Shokoe Slip 3. Aercine 4. As I Was Saying 5. Renata 6. Changeling 7. Kaaterskill Falls 8. Occam’s Razor 9. Maracaibo 10. Roundup

Personnel: Aercine: Herb Robertson (trumpet); Mark Feldman (violin); Michel Jefry Stevens (piano); Steve Rust (bass); Harvey Sorgen (drums)

Track Listing: Suite: 1. For Galo 2. Ask Me Now 3. Musica Callada #1 4. Quiet 5. The Search 6. Survivor’s Suite I. Praeludium II. Yin/Tang III. Interludium IV. The Eternal Spring Of Hope V. Postlude

Personnel: Suite: Michel Jefry Stevens (piano)