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For the past few years the Stein Brothers have been refining a bebop-oriented ensemble sound in a variety of Northern New Jersey venues. Saxophonists Alex and Asher Stein are as enthusiastic in playing for a noisy dinner crowd as an attentive audience of jazz aficionados. A recent appearance at Trumpets was one of a series of gigs preceding their first recording session as co-leaders.
During the first set the Steins concentrated on material that will appear on the disc, including two originals by the band's pianist Mferghu, one by Asher, a composition by Barry Harris, and two items from the American Popular Songbook. Judging by the balance between ensemble playing and improvisation, a tight, responsive rhythm section, and the consistently invigorating solos by all hands, they're ready to take the next, all-important step in finding a wider audience.
There were some essential differences from the Stein Brothers show at the Montville Public Library I reviewed in January of 2006, each of which bodes well for the record's success. One is the presence of Joe Blaxx, a no-frills, straight-ahead drummer who stays in the pocket and works hard at making everyone sound better. At Trumpets Blaxx played on a pared-down drum kit, but the absence of tom toms didn't diminish his effectiveness. He often added to the rhythm section's pop by playing the bass drum on all four beats in synch with the band's workhorse, bassist Doug Largent. During Mferghu's "Mid-Life Crisis, the drummer and pianist cooked up riff-like jabs in unison at key points behind Alex's solo.
Trombonist Jonathan Voltzok joined the front line for the set and will appear on four of the disc's tracks. Like the Steins, Voltzok's solos had a strong sense of narrative, and he didn't allow any flashy displays of technique to get in the way of telling a coherent tale. During Barry Harris's "And I Love You So he was particularly effective, sounding wistful at times and consistently churning out melodies that contained an edge. Voltzok also displayed a bopper's penchant for song quotes, including Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare in the middle of his turn on "This Time The Dream's On Me.
Both Alex and Asher displayed noticeable growth as soloists. Unlike a lot of young players who briefly express an interest in bop, only to move on to other, more currently fashionable developments in the jazz timeline, the brothers are standing firm and finding ways to make their mark on established practices.
The antithesis of an over-the-top, pyrotechnical bebopper, Alex is cool, graceful, and shuns things like bellowing or using multiphonics. His playing often sounded like something out of a dream, and he never allowed himself to get unsettled by the rhythm section's occasional inflammatory interjections. Alex's smoky tone and behind-the-beat phrasing were evident throughout Asher's "Charmed Quark, on which he evinced a quiet authority while working through the tune's changes. On Harris's "And I Love You So, he really dug in, producing another standout solo yet managing to sound suave and unruffled.
Unlike the legions of alto saxophonists who ostentatiously wear the influence of Charlie Parker, Asher has grown out of playing Bird's licks verbatim. To his credit, however, he creates rhythmic tensionsnot unlike the master'sthat have little to do with sheer velocity. His solos were nicely paced, showing he's learned to sustain momentum instead of moving from one discrete segment to the next. He was pure thrust on Mferghu's "Jammin' At The JCT, full of singing, angular melodies and brief, poignant climaxes. Mferghu made an impromptu suggestion in the middle of "This Time The Dream's On Me, and Asher immediately picked up on it; then he proceeded to work another phrase as if taking it apart and putting it back together again.
Mferghu's tunes, comping and solos were a common denominator of the band's sound at Trumpets as well as last year's gig. The pianist's "Jammin' At the JCT mirrored his playingtraditional bebop leavened by busy, occasionally dissonant touches. His solos often moved in a lucid, unhurried manner, before taking idiosyncratic turns. In the middle of "Charmed Quark he used two devices that were repeated in different guises during the set: striking one jarring note in an unexpected place and playing extended passages during which his right and left hands were independent, seemingly at odds with one another. At one point in "Mid-Life Crisis the piano resembled church bells ringing. And the rousing, two-handed triplet runs during "This Time The Dream's On Me sounded like a carnival.
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