Michael Jefry Stevens
Cornelia Street Cafe
New York City
Michael Jefry Stevens, a Brooklyn-based pianist with a taste for the avant-garde, has been pursuing a secret career as a jazz songwriter. That’s right: this Mark Whitecage-mentored purveyor of free improv has been building a stash of "songs with lyrics," on tried-and-true subjects like love and the blues, for the last twenty years. (Stevens credits Laura Arbuckle, Tania Lomnitz, and Kathleen Sannwald as his lyrical collaborators.) Shyness, he admits, is what kept him from going public with these songs until now. For precisely this reason, he’s got the ultra-extroverted singer Miles Griffith to belt them out for his debut "Songbook" concert. Playing Hammond organ, Stevens is also joined by Kevin McNeal on guitar and Rob Garcia on drums, both of whom bring buckets of good taste to bear on the material.
The group opens with "Red’s Blues," primarily a scat vehicle for Griffith. The fireplug of a vocalist brings a trumpet-like attack to the melody, then delivers a solo full of impeccable bop phrasing punctuated with growls, outlandish gibberish, and mic-distorting effects. Changing gears, the group moves on with "Safe In My Arms," a love ballad; "Jonathan Max," an up-tempo waltz dedicated to a newborn child; "Lost Love," an ode to heartbreak; and "Only Love," an R&B-tinged number that Stevens jokingly introduces as "the ladies’ choice." To close the set Griffith takes center stage for "Losing Streak," a slow, blues-based ditty with a priceless lyric: "You’re on a losing streak/ your shit’s about to freak." Griffith facilitates some hilarious audience participation, goading the house to repeat his wacked-out ad libs note for note, shriek for shriek.
Stevens and Griffith are perfect foils for one another: the leader’s deadpan stage demeanor is funny in its own right, but it’s even funnier next to Griffith’s over-the-top antics. The only risk is that some might find Griffith hard to take seriously on the sadder numbers. But that aside, Stevens has hit upon a winning combination that ought to get wider exposure.