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Michael Jefry Stevens: Brass Tactics

Budd Kopman By

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Anyone remotely interested "creative improvised music" (aka jazz) that intersects with the Classical aesthetic should take the time to listen closely to pianist Michael Jefry Stevens' latest release Brass Tactics.

Stevens is a thinking man's player mostly known for his work in the Fonda/Stevens group (see Folk Five) and Conference Call, (with Gebhard Ullmann) as well leading his own group, for example For The Children.

The instrumentation on Brass Tactics stems from Stevens' fascination with brass instruments that goes back to his early days playing the trombone in the grade school band. The group he has put together includes trombonist Steve Swell, who is connected to Stevens through Gebhard Ullmann (Basement Research/Conference Call), trombonist Dave Taylor (see Morning Moon), trumpeter Dave Ballou, heard most recently on Steve Olson's Conversations and trumpeter Ed Sarath.

The instrumentation is, of course, interesting and Stevens finds many ways to not only mix the piano and horns, but to voice the horns themselves. Aside from four completely improvised tracks ("Ten Degrees Celsius," "Twenty Degrees Farenheit," "Fifty Degree Farenheit," and "Forty Degrees Celsius"), the remaining eight tracks are compositions which are intricate enough that Stevens enlisted Amy Kohn to conduct, which stretches the concept of "lead sheet" to the limit. While there is improvisation on all of these tracks, the extent of it and how obvious it is varies, keeping us guessing at times as to when it is happening.

The recording opens with "12 Chatham Road," a composition from twenty years ago and which appeared on Haiku (Leo Records, 1995), a duo recording with violinist Mark Feldman. The earlier, and one could say original, treatment is quite different than the current one, and not only in the instrumentation; ethereal shimmering in both the piano and violin has been replaced by piquancy and forcefulness in the piano and horns. That which follows, "Temperature Rising" is completely different, sounding like "composed swing" in its jauntiness.

"For Alban Berg," a beautiful piece, which sounds mostly composed, opens with just horns playing a kind of chorale. This leads to piano taking up the line, with the horns gradually surrounding it from above and below, moving finally to a recap of the horn chorale. There is somewhat similar construction in "Ping Pong," as an all horn opening moves to an eerie, low piano theme with horn accompaniment. However the middle third sounds more like a conversation, even an argument, rather than theme and accompaniment before returning to the recap. "To The Glory" reaches for the ineffable in another horn chorale, after which the piano adds short commentary to the euphonious horns.

Surrounding the above tracks are two of the improvisations. The first, "Twenty Degrees Farenheit" features an ominous, rumbling piano figure with horn accompaniment and commentary, until the piano takes over, pushing out the other voices. "Fifty Degrees Farenheit" features the horns and piano on a more equal basis, playing off each other's ideas, as the texture and density varies over time.

The next, and longest, track is another free improvisation, "Forty Degrees Celsius," which definitively shows how sensitive musicians with quick reflexes can produce music which ends up having structure and development, starting from nothing; the track is fascinating and spellbinding as it progresses.

Stevens presents, with Brass Tactics, music on which to really chew and reflect upon. It is at once both delicately floating and tautly intense, making for highly rewarding listening.

Track Listing: 12 Chatham Road; Temperature Rising; Ten Degrees Celsius; Variables; Twenty Degrees Farenheit; For Alban Berg; Ping Pong; To The Glory; Fifty Degrees Farenheit; Forty Degrees Celsius; Variables Reprise; Temperature Rising Reprise.

Personnel: Steve Swell: trombone; Dave Taylor: trombone; Dave Ballou: trumpet; Ed Sarath: trumpet; Michael J. Stevens: piano; Amy Kohn: conductor.

Title: Brass Tactics | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Konnex Records

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