Pianist Michael Jefry Stevens has to be one of most under-appreciated composers and players around. His discography as a leader, going back to 1995, is slight, and he can be most easily heard in cooperative groups such as Conference Call (nominally led by Gebhard Ullmann
) and the Fonda/Stevens group. Stevens is an intellectually stimulating player with eclectic tastes, an extremely sharp mind and fast reflexes, able to lead and follow in many a varied musical situation. For The Children
, recorded in 1995 but just now released in the Historical Series
of Cadence Jazz Records, can be held up as a wonderful and captivating example of everything Stevens is as a composerhe composed all of the musicand player. The music is fresh, exciting and full of interesting eddies and currents, providing yet another example of the uselessness of the term "mainstream."
In the liner notes, Stevens briefly discusses the genesis of the project, especially as it involved his long, twenty-year friendship with bassist Dominic Duval. For his part, Duval has recorded extensively on Cadence labels (CIMP and CJR) with drummer/percussionist Jay Rosen, so the circle can be said to have been completed. For The Children
is a live to DAT studio recording when such technology was bleeding edge, with no edits.
Duval, in his contribution to the liner notes, mentions that in his playing at the time he was trying to not only provide the music's harmonic foundation, but also to incorporate the tune's melody and its meaning within his lines. The title tune was dedicated by Stevens to Duval and his wife Katherine (now deceased) on the birth of their triplets. It is an extraordinary ballad with a beautiful melody full of poignancy; it is played with simple but deep feeling by saxophonist David Schnitter.
This tune encapsulates everything that is meant by Duke Ellington's quote (mentioned by Duval) that, "there are only two types of music: good
music and bad
music." The melody is immediately understandable and, while developing naturally, never is predictable and hence grabs and keeps the mind's attention. The music feels like a summary of all that has gone before it, tapping into the ancient connection of music to human emotion while paradoxically sounding modern and new.
The other tunes explore different sounds and emotions, ranging from the dangerous mystery of the opening "Specific Gravity," with its long trill section by Stevens, to "The Hunt," a killer, down home, to-the-point blues that brings goose bumps, to "Graduation," which brims with humor and playfulness. For The Children
can be played over and over again precisely because it is both old and new. Its forms and harmonies begin with the traditional but are then pulled and stretched in new and surprising ways, producing music that is as alive now as when it was recorded.