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Michael Jefry Stevens & Mark Whitecage: Short Stories

Robert Spencer By

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Many of the tracks on Short Stories start in a tone of regretful tenderness befitting the title of the first track, "Bittersweet." But there is a piquancy to the playing of both members of this duo, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and multi-talented reedman (alto & soprano sax, plus alto clarinet) Mark Whitecage, that makes this more than your average jazz ballad. Stevens' playing is invested with the harmonic richness of classical music, combined with the inexorable forward motion of jazz and a rhythmic elasticity that allows for a maximum of improvisational power. Whitecage seems conversant with both pre-Ayler and post-Ayler reed playing, and he's able to make use of a large number of effects to increase or decrease tension. As the moods are created and shifted and transmuted, Stevens and Whitecage carry the attentive listener along on an ever-fascinating journey.

Most remarkably of all, Stevens and Whitecage play absolutely together at all times. This series of compositions by Stevens is by no means simple, but Whitecage is up to the task. Wherever he goes, Stevens is there; wherever Stevens goes, he's there. In adventurous music like this that's no mean feat: Monk's "empty elevator shaft" might seem downright cozy compared to the rhythmic and melodic treacherousness of these tracks. But these two having been playing together a long time, and a recording like this is the ample fruit of their labors.

All the tracks touch on a number of moods and approaches, but "Short Story #1" heats up outstandingly, while tracks like "Bittersweet" and "Short Story #2" are simply gorgeous at times without lapsing for a moment into tired forms. The closing track, "The Miracle," sums up the miraculous interplay works: Whitecage states a simple, romantic figure with Stevens comping in a melancholy mode. When the pianist solos he weaves heart-breaking miniatures that, again, sound simple but are at the same time invested with a richness of emotion that never sounds formulaic or cloying. A fittingly muted end to a modest recording by two much-overlooked master musicians. Highly recommended.


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