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Michael Stephans / Spatial Edition: Open Spaces

Chuck Koton By

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Michael Stephans—educator and published author of prose and poetry—also happens to be a master jazz drummer and percussionist. The Miami-born Stephans, who these days lives in the surprisingly jazz-heavy Pennsylvania Poconos, has performed with world renowned horn players like Pharoah Sanders, Dave Liebman and Bennie Maupin, as well as Grammy-winning pianist, Alan Broadbent, among others. On Open Spaces, Stephans and Spatial Edition perform a dynamic and memorable mix of mostly original music.

The quartet kicks off with the title tune, an up-tempo cooker penned by an old friend from Stephans' days in Los Angeles, pianist and composer Theo Saunders. Zach Brock's hard-swimgin' violin solo gets the fingers snappin' while providing ample evidence of his rising star status. The rhythm section, led by Stephans' light but unrelenting touch, collectively puts the pedal to the metal.

Stephans and friends slam on the aural brakes for "Quo Vadis," a tranquil, meditative composition by two of Poland's top musicians, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and violinist Zbigniew Seifert, to whom (along with the late, great trombonist/composer/arranger Bob Brookmeyer) the recording is dedicated. Veteran pianist Jim Ridl's sparse use of notes, simultaneously soulful and cerebral, evokes the lonely landscapes of the CD's title and cover art.

On the standard, "You Don't Know What Love Is," Brock emotes with a wistfulness that belies his relative youth. His mournful violin and Ridl's probing chords over Stephans' percussive tension paints the blue moods, all but pouring the needed shot of Scotch. Ridl's "Blue Waters" opens gently, like a misty sunrise, Brock and Ridl dance slowly over Stephans' shimmering cymbals, before the band breaks into another finger-snappin' groove.

The recording closes with Brock's "Mr. Shah," on which he bows a European-influenced, deliberate and unaccompanied solo before sneakily picking up the pace. At this point Stephans—à la Art Blakey—and veteran bassist Steve Varner lay down some heavy, visceral rhythms, pushing the band like a jockey drivin' his horse in the Kentucky Derby.

Track Listing: Open Spaces; Quo Vadis; You Don't Know What Love Is; Sno Peas; Gratitude; Blue Waters; Take It With Me; Mr. Shah.

Personnel: Michael Stephans: drums, voice; Jim Ridl: piano; Steve Varner: acoustic bass; Zach Brock: violin, baritone violin.

Title: Open Spaces | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Lunazure Records

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