September 30, 2011
Stevens, Siegel & Ferguson
Konnex KCD 5243
Red Piano Records rpr 14599-4403-2
Fully-functioning Jazz piano trios involve a meeting of equals, so that all nuances of the performance are communicated. Nonetheless its very name attests that, intentionally or not, the keyboardist usually becomes first among equals, a situation that sometimes unbalances the performance.
Helsinki native Frank Carlberg dominates Tivoli Trio in that manner. Now domiciled in New York, the keyboardist composed all 13 of the tracks here and even co-owns the record company. But Carlberg, who is also on the faculty of the New England Conservatory and Berklee College and has played with among others saxophonist Steve Lacy and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, has enough experience with different bands to ensure his so-called sidemen can not only deal with the demanding themes, but challenge him when necessary. Gerald Cleaver is one of the most versatile drummers in New York, working with, among others, saxophonists Tim Berne and Roscoe Mitchell. Bassist John Hébert follows a similar path, playing with trombonist Joe Fielder and trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum to name two.
More democratic, the sixth CD since 1999 by the co-op trio of pianist Michael Jefrey Stevens, bassist Tim Ferguson and drummer Jeff “Siege” Sigel finds the three in a program that’s half standards and half originals composed by trio member. Although some of the new tunes impress, the band’s real skill is apparent when it rethinks and reshapes such hoary standards as “It Never Entered My Mind”, Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser”, and the country classic “Tennessee Waltz”.
Such freedom with familiar fare should be expected, considering the band’s collective musical experience. Someone who teaches Jazz drumming at the State University of New York at New Paltz and Western Connecticut State University, Siegel was a member of mainstream pianist Sir Roland Hanna’s trio from 1994-1999 and has worked with players ranging from tenor saxophonist Benny Golson to brass man Wadada Leo Smith. Besides authoring books on playing Jazz bass and teaching, Ferguson has played music for TV and films, been in Broadway pit orchestras and in ensembles as different as The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and pianist Don Friedman’s groups. Best-known for his decades-long partnership with bassist Joe Fonda, Stevens, now based in Asheville, N.C., unites with German reedist Gebhard Ullman and Fonda in Conference Call and has recorded a clutch of CDs as leader.
You can glimpse Stevens, Siegel & Ferguson’s particular skill by noting how they handle “Tennessee Waltz”. Subtly rhythmic and banishing any thought of Patti Page, theme development is often communicated through the bassist. “My Baby Don’t Care for Me” gets a similar treatment, with initial stops and thumps from Ferguson presaging Stevens’ swinging runs which build up to a crescendo, elaborated still further by the bassist and some bouncing flams from Siege and ends with a multiphonic key explosion by all. Treating the Monk tune in a distinctive non-Monkish fashion, Stevens scatters and skitters lines with a multi-fingered attack that’s made even more energetic by Ferguson’s string popping. When the theme is recapped it comes out even speedier.
“Two for Tea” – a contrafact of the beginners’ piano exercise “Tea for Two” – is the only semi-standard on Tivoli Trio. Most of the carefully composed themes are rather musical reconstituting of the performers and performances at carnivals and circuses Carlberg thrilled to during his Finnish childhood. He exhibits a different skill on “Tea for Two” however. Like Bud Powell and other Bop pianists sometimes did with chestnuts, Carlberg makes the song outline low-frequency and bouncy, with bassist and drummer pulsating alongside. Then when the (overly) familiar theme finally appears, the pianist demonstrates that he’s mastered the art of swinging at a very slow tempo.
Composing program music is an acquired art, and despite samples of midway sounds and excited young voices, plus allusions to organ grinders and calliopes, the other suite’s compositions don’t really distinguish themselves until the half-way point. Perhaps related to a ringmaster’s towering chapeau, “Bill’s Hat” is a standout, with dynamic voicing that encompasses tripartite contributions, spread over an unforced slithery line, enlivened by Cleaver’s semi-military beat and Hébert’s focused slaps.
“Potholes” with its walking bass line from Hébert and the drummer’s steady ruffs and paradiddles, is another highpoint, with some classic trading of fours at the finale and earlier an inference that it too may be a Monk contrafact Evolving in sections “Spit (the Game)” is a double-timed romp, where Carlberg’s intense cross-handed pumps and key fanning could define the piece as an etude. A heavily rhythmic ending that includes repetitive and interchangeable note clusters, calls for complementary rolls and pops from the drummer.
Finally “Harlequin” wraps up the suite – except for less-than one minute of extraneous carnival noise on the last track – with a descriptive narrative, as left-handed accompaniment slides into rubato mid-tempo and answers the original theme statement at the CD’s beginning. Throughout the track, the bass and drums stay in the background.
Completely opposite – and unlike more overtly serious tunes Stevens for one has composed elsewhere – Six’s originals are very much what one would expect from a conventional piano trio. The pianist’s “Song for Rio” for example, is a calm bossa nova featuring Siegel smacking rim shots and the composer moving from exposed arpeggios to strumming chords and key clicks. Designed to show off its composer’s muscular double-stopping and sul tasto slides, Ferguson’s “Green Room” has a melody that sounds instantly familiar. Intriguingly inventive here, Stevens evolves a low-frequency fantasia as he spins out theme variation upon theme variation and ends with a dramatic denouncement.
Meanwhile the drummer’s “Remembering Shirley”, the CD’s final track, is a prototypical set-closer. A semi-blues it leads Stevens to staccato syncopation, Ferguson to steadying pumps and Siegel to expressive drum pops. Still there are enough slithering blues notes and quivering slides from the pianist to suggest parodic exaggeration.
Clean in execution, and notable in its second half, the Tivoli Trio’s CD is a Jazz suite that is musically sophisticated as well as descriptive. A highly professional take on the classic piano trio, Stevens, Siegel & Ferguson’s disc will satisfy anyone interested in that genre, while gently challenging them as well.
Track Listing: Tivoli 1. Fanfare 2. Tricks 3. The Chase 4. Rumble Mumble 5. One Moment, Please 6. Bill's Hat 7. Two For Tea 8. Highwire 9. Potholes 10. Spit (The Game) 11. Tumbles 12. Harlequin 13. ... Into The Night ....
Personnel: Tivoli: Frank Carlberg (piano); John Hébert (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums)
Track Listing: Six: 1. It Never Entered My Mind 2. It’s Only a Paper Moon 3. Straight No Chaser 4. Tennessee Waltz 5. The Fire 6. Song for Rio 7. Green Room 8. My Baby Don’t Care for Me 9. Shifting Sands 10. Remembering Shirley
Personnel: Six: Michael Jefrey Stevens (piano); Tim Ferguson (bass) and Jeff “Siege” Siegel (drums)