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Steven Feifke: Kinetic

Courtesy Chris Lee

Dan Bilawsky BY

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In terms of physics, kinetic energy is described as a force or power which a body or object possesses by virtue of being in motion. With reference to the aptly named debut from the Steven Feifke Big Band, that ideal is fully applicable. Kinetic, recorded in early 2019 and released in April of 2021, capitalizes on and associates strongly with its taken concept. Showcasing Feifke's skills with pen and piano, and highlighting the work of many of his rising-star peers, it's a shining example of how possibility may be transformed into reality.

Opening with the title track, a burner featuring the leader, trumpeter Gabriel King Medd and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., the band immediately makes good on its promise. "Ulysses only had a little time that day when we were recording—he was flying to China a couple of hours after the session—so he came in and did just two takes with us. It was 11:30 in the morning on a Wednesday in January when we did this, and the first take we captured is what's on the record," Feifke recalls while addressing the bigger picture. "That type of performance is so characteristic of my band. And that's, honestly, why the album is called Kinetic. It's just this idea of energy that isn't real [at first], but as soon as you hit the downbeat it's there."

While that track best reflects Feifke's thoughts on the matter, it's but one of many originals that live up to the theme. The jaunty "Word Travels Fast," which provides a platform for Feifke, Medd, tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino and drummer Jimmy Macbride, takes a more lighthearted approach in delivering the message; a positively infectious "Midnight Beat"— something of "a cross between Neil Hefti and Bob Mintzer, built on an orchestrational call-and-response that's classic Basie but with a modern harmonic sense"—does so in funky fashion; "The Sphinx," formed from a self-made mode used to extract melodic and triadic DNA, add a certain amount of intentional dissonance and guide the listener through step-wise motion, gets the point across with a wandering spirit; and "Closure," a gorgeous piece of exit music featuring tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon, points the way in uplifting fashion.

Additional works—"Unveiling of a Mirror," playing with perception while creating "a juxtaposition between seeing things for what they are and seeing things as you want them to be," and chart expansions on "Wollongong" and Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream," originally from Feifke's septet-centric debut, Peace in Time (Self Produced, 2015)—speak to serious strength(s) on the purely instrumental side. But two vocal features also serve as standouts, highlighting a simpatico relationship with singing sensation Veronica Swift while offering another dimension to the program.

Having been introduced to each other through trumpeter/vocalist Benny Benack III, Feifke and Swift had the opportunity to work together well before this album came into being. And her arrival as the album's featured vocalist occurred through a natural progression: "Veronica came to The Django [in Manhattan] one night when the band was playing there. And she was crazy about the group. She told me she wanted to sing with the band, so I of course said, 'Whenever you want! Just say the word.'" A year later, while Feifke was busy doing some arranging work for the album that would become Swift's This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue, 2021), that same topic of conversation surfaced when he shared some recordings of the band's Sear Sound studio session. From there, it was a quick jump to Swift's onboarding and recording of Kinetic's takes on "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" and "On the Street Where You Live." The former, a sparkling beauty, and the latter, introduced with dramatic intentions and carrying itself with both passion and poise, make for significant additions to the album.

In framing this dynamic collection as potential willed into existence, Feifke speaks clearly to both process and the profound nature of kinship that drive this music. But the presence of kinetic energy isn't just limited to this specific section of his story. In fact, it's an essential aspect of this artist's entire professional journey in music. Over the course of the past decade, Feifke has been a man in perpetual motion. He's twice been a semi-finalist in the Thelonious Monk Institute's Piano Competition, in 2011 and 2015; appeared on approximately three dozen albums, including dates with saxophonists Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and Alexa Tarantino, vocalist Veronica Swift, and the 8-Bit Big Band; shared stages with respected veterans like trumpeter Randy Brecker and vocalist Steve Tyrell; taken on commissions from the Manhattan School of Music Orchestra with trumpeter Sean Jones, the Malmo Big Band with bassist/vocalist Katie Thiroux, and the Vancouver Symphony with saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Peplowski; put his compositional strengths to good use for television programs like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Impractical Jokers, and the Animaniacs reboot; and passed along his hard-earned knowledge as a teacher or guest lecturer at The New School, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Yale University, among other respected institutions. Feifke has, quite simply, become an unstoppable force, which isn't so surprising when you consider that his motile mindset has been driving the train from the very beginning.

Growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, Feifke would use the aforementioned energy to find his way over to the piano as a toddler. "My mom said that I was drawn to the piano that we had at our house. She saw that I liked the instrument, and she's a great amateur pianist, so she started teaching me when I was four." Those lessons gave Feifke an introduction to the 88s, and early studies with another teacher helped to lay a foundation for success. But it was his third instructor who truly set him on his path. "When I was seven or eight, I switched to an amazing teacher named Susan Capestro. And Susan was a formative influence in my learning process. Basically, she was the first person to teach me about composition and improvisation, and that those two things aren't all that different. Every single week I had an assignment from her to write a new composition. But I didn't really realize that that's what it was at the time."

In sitting at the bench with Capestro, Feifke arrived at the juncture where imagination and actuation intersect. "She would basically say, 'OK, play a waterfall.' And I was a kid. So, of course, I took my hands and ran them down the length of the piano. And then she would lead me from there, saying, 'Great! Now what happens when the water hits the bottom?' And I would think, and then just smash my hands down on the lower register of the piano. And then she'd ask, 'What happens to the water afterwards? Does it turn into mist?' So basically, she started walking me through this whole process that, to this day, stays with me when I write. It's the connectivity between music and real life—imagery, expression, emotion. How I deal with those things is due in a large part to the fact that, from a young age, Susan trained me [to know how to] express my innermost thoughts and feelings through music. I was eight at the time, and I had no idea that that's what she was doing, but she did it. She also worked on ear training, taught me my first bebop licks, my first voicings, my first songs. I still have my first Real Book from my lessons with her, which is all marked up. And she would invite me to sit in with a Boston-area big band that she played with. At a certain point, Susan started buying me records, too—Infinity (Impulse!, 1995) by McCoy Tyner, Soliloquy (Blue Note, 1991) by McCoy Tyner, The Atomic Mr. Basie (Roulette, 1958). Once I had that last one, she even taught me "The Kid from Red Bank" solo. As I said, it was a very, very formative experience studying with her."

Concurrent with (and following) that time with Capestro, Feifke was exploring jazz in school ensemble settings. Working under Jeff Leonard in the Lexington High School Jazz Band and its feeder program, he received some solid direction in everything from performing to the art of transcribing comping rhythms. And when Leonard brought pianist Makoto Ozone into the school as a guest artist, it proved to be a life-altering event for Feifke. "That was the first time I'd been up close and personal with a professional musician of that caliber. And Makoto opened up a whole other world for me in terms of what was possible to do at the piano." At the advice of Dave Zoffer, Feifke's piano teacher at the New England Conservatory (NEC) Preparatory School at the time (and throughout his high school years), this budding artist began to connect the dots between Ozone and his influences (i.e. Oscar Peterson) while broadening his own horizons.

Over that significant stretch of time, as Feifke developed his technique and taste(s) as a prodigious child and teenage pianist, he simultaneously explored his passion for writing. "Honestly, my favorite thing to do was to write music. I just remember being at sports practice as a kid and thinking, 'Man, I wonder what this chord sounds like?' [laughs]. It was in my head—[I was] piecing together notes of a chord—and I would go home and just write these things out. In high school I would write out arrangements for septet because that was the instrumentation of the small band at Lexington. The combo I was in just happened to be alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, trumpet, guitar, piano, bass and drums. So that's what I grew up writing for and that's the instrumentation on my first record, Peace in Time."

A fascination for the sound and mechanics of big band writing—the work and language of everybody from Thad Jones to Jim McNeely to Maria Schneider—also filtered into Feifke's consciousness through his participation in his high school big band, the Ken Schaphorst-helmed large ensemble in the NEC prep program, and all-state jazz bands conducted by heavyweights like saxophonist Dave Pietro. But a true grasp of the art of big band writing eluded him, as he shares with amusement: "In high school, I tried my hand at writing several big band charts which were relatively unsuccessful [laughs]. I just had no idea what I was doing. At that point, I had never played a wind instrument in my life. I had no clue what it felt like to put a trumpet or trombone to your lips, let alone a saxophone. And my writing reflected that lack of understanding."

Fortunately, ambition and a desire to learn would right those problems as Feifke went on to learn from the ground up during his undergraduate years at New York University. "My roommate started teaching me to play saxophone. And it was the first time I learned that there's really a lot that you need to consider when you play. So I started to get a real experience for playing other instruments. I can't actually play them, but I learned enough on saxophone, trumpet, trombone, bass and flute to kind of know how to do some damage with a pen. I learned what it actually felt like to try to play a high note on the trumpet and then a low note on the trumpet. And vice versa. And I started to understand what's very difficult. As a college freshman, I had never really reckoned with or thought about that before."

As Feifke began to discover the different nuances surrounding each horn, he continued to flex his fingers at the piano while exploring the art of the chart. Playing in trumpeter Brian Lynch's Artist's Ensemble at NYU helped him to increase his understanding of how to better flesh out combo arrangements and working under Rich Shemaria in the NYU Jazz Orchestra gave him a chance to dig deeper into his passion for big band work. Eventually, Shemaria even gave Feifke a chance to try his hand at writing for that large ensemble. "At the end of every semester there would be a concert featuring a guest artist. And I started bugging Rich to let me write [laughs]," he confesses. "Basically, in my sophomore year I said, 'Mr. Shemaria, I would love to write a chart for this concert. Do you need any help writing something for this concert? I can write something for the band. I'd like to do that.' And he said, 'No, Steven. No. Thanks, but no thanks.' And I did that a few times, always getting the same answer. Then, when Stefon Harris was the guest artist one year, I asked [in a slightly different manner]: 'Mr. Shemaria. I'm not sure if it's possible, but I'd like to write something for the concert. But only if you don't have enough time to do something.' And he said, 'OK, that sounds great. Actually, I don't have enough time to do one of the charts. Can you write an arrangement of "The Velvet Couch" for Stefon?' And I, of course, jumped at the opportunity. I remember picking it apart and writing it all down. And Stefon seemed to really like it. That was really the first successful big band chart that I wrote."

That experience, which was deepened with further opportunities to write for the ensemble, along with studies with Gil Goldstein, a true mentor in music and life, helped solidify an understanding of language and individuality in Feifke that would serve him well as he entered the real world. When that happened, however, his future was anything but fixed. Having flirted with a career in business, since he'd studied economics in parallel to jazz, that pathway offered real possibilities. Feifke just wasn't convinced that that's where he belonged. Jazz kept calling, so, before making any other moves, he gave himself a three-year test window to see if a life in music would take. And as Feifke made his way at the start, with teaching and gigging and networking in the mix, he quickly learned a valuable life lesson that would help to produce the first seed for his band: "Somebody I met had commissioned me to write an arrangement of 'I've Got the World on a String' for big band and vocalist. And it turned out that he didn't like the arrangement that I wrote. We didn't have a contract, he didn't pay me, he didn't want to play the song with his band, and I said I'd never let that happen again. But now I had this chart and I thought, 'Well, I kind of like this arrangement.' So I got a group of friends together and we went into the studio to record that along with an arrangement I did on 'My Favorite Things.' Those are the first two recordings of my big band on YouTube and that kind of got the ball rolling."

That initial taste of leading a large ensemble whetted Feifke's appetite, as he explains: "Shortly after I released the first video I decided that I wanted to have a big band. So I started booking shows all around the city, literally anywhere I could play. I premiered the group at the 92Y Tribeca. And we played at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn and at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan. We were eventually booked at Dizzy's for the late set, so we played there a couple of times too. And that's when it started to feel real. That room and milestone were very special." Right then and there, in beginning to realize big dreams while contending with a small repertoire, Feifke also saw he had some work to do. "I knew that I needed to write more music and I had to have a regular gig in order to make things happen. So there was a place in Brooklyn called Sir D's [formerly known as The Tea Lounge] and I would play there twice a month. The gig literally paid nothing, so I would pay everybody out of pocket. And I would bring three or four new charts to every show, whether they were from scratch or simply updated charts. I really got my charts together there, with that gig."

Having developed the beginnings of a solid book and started to craft a clear identity, Feifke soon found another outlet for the band that would become something of a home base. "At a certain point, The Django started booking big bands," he shares. "So we played there once and it went well. And then we played there another time and it was also great. At one point in that period, [tenor saxophonist] Ken Fowser started to do the bookings for the club and he offered us [the opportunity] to do a show there roughly once a month. And that's how that happened. So over the two years that followed, [playing] at The Django, the [identity] of the band really took form. We got used to playing for a live audience. And I got used to communicating and connecting with a crowd—musically and at the microphone—which at that point had been very foreign to me."

As things took off for Feifke—with a big band in bloom, writing commissions coming in, sideman work filling out his schedule and teaching engagements entering the picture—it was clear that his trial run in music had been a success. So with his eyes on the future, and a self-diagnosed need to fine-tune his skills, Feifke returned to school. "I said, 'OK, this is working out and this is exactly what I want to be doing.' But I knew there were holes in my knowledge that I needed to fill. And I had always wanted to work with Jim McNeely, ever since I had played [his composition] 'Extra Credit' in the all-state band that Dave Pietro had conducted. So I applied to the Manhattan School of Music. I studied with Jim there and had some mind-boggling experiences taking a class with Dave Liebman and Phil Markowitz. And my ears and harmonic palette grew exponentially. At the same time, I enrolled in a lot of courses in the classical department. I was taking classical orchestration and a class called harmonic science. And that's around the time when I started writing the music for Kinetic—between 2016 and 2018, while I was there."

In the years during that period, as the band settled into a steady groove with performing and Feifke completed the music for Kinetic, the personnel began to solidify. Charter members and close friends helped to anchor the group as it evolved—Pino, Benack, Medd, alto saxophonist (and co-producer) Andrew Gould, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas and majority-stake drummer Jimmy Macbride were all there at or near the beginning—and newer faces came in along the way and played their roles to perfection. "If you look at that original video of 'I've Got the World on a String' or any of the other subsequent videos, the personnel changes quite a bit," Feifke points out. "But that's not for any negative reason. I love everybody who's ever been in the band. It was just circumstances—people would take a teaching gig at a college or move out of the area. But once we had The Django residency, things started to click. Once I allowed the music to lead the way, the personnel seemed to take on its own personality."

Different pieces of that puzzle would fall into place as Feifke steadily worked his way through his past and present. "Alexa Tarantino and I became friends at Skidmore Jazz Institute when we were in high school. And when I moved to the city I needed a second alto one night so I called her. Besides saxophone, she's just the most incredible flutist. I just remember hearing her on flute and thinking, 'I can write so much [for that] if she's in the band.' Then there's tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon, who's a good friend of Andrew Gould's. Sam would come to quartet gigs at Smalls and we would hang out a lot. Trombonist Armando Vergara is a friend of mine from MSM. He was doing his undergraduate work while I was doing my masters. And I met bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton when I was on a gig with the New Alchemy Jazz Orchestra. I could hear her from the piano and I thought, 'Yeah, I want that sound in my band.'" Add to that list trumpeter Max Darché, a match made by Gould; trumpeter John Lake, Feifke's friend from their shared days as copyists for David Berger; trombonists Robert Edwards and Jeffrey Miller, two powerhouses from Juilliard; and a cast of strong rhythm figures—guitarist Alex Wintz, bassist Dan Chmielinski, and a rotating drum roster featuring MacBride, Owens, Bryan Carter and Joe Peri—and a complete picture would emerge.

By the time the two-day recording session for Kinetic came into view at the dawn of 2019, the Steven Feifke Big Band, with set personnel in place, had become a well-oiled machine. And the music most certainly bears that out. Its ten tracks offer strength in forward motion that stands in stark contrast to the stasis that settled over the land during the pandemic. Just over a year after those sessions, while the album was undergoing post-production work in various stages, COVID-19 brought live performances to a standstill. But nothing, of course, could stop Feifke from working. In addition to taking commissions, penning new material for his own ensemble and writing all of the charts for the Chad LB Virtual Big Band's Quarantine Standards (Self-Produced, 2020), Feifke formed a new enterprise in collaboration with trumpeter Bijon Watson—The Generation Gap Orchestra. A big band boasting a roster of top-tier players like baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and trombonist John Fedchock, the ensemble took shape over the 18 months prior to this interview and, near the time of our conversation, recorded its debut (slated for release in 2022), featuring guest appearances from trumpeter Sean Jones and vocalist Kurt Elling.

All of that activity bodes well for Feifke's musical future and, despite the current COVID-related hiatus for many if not most live big band performances, he remains optimistic about where things are headed and the state of large ensembles in the grand scheme of the scene. "Right before 1920 we had the Spanish Flu, right? And that ushered in The Roaring Twenties, which was a huge decade for jazz and big bands in general. There has to be some sort of parallel here. There are so many big bands around today. And there are so many incredible composers and arrangers and big band leaders on the scene right now. I can probably spend hours just talking about some of my favorite contemporaries—Charlie Rosen, Jihye Lee, Miho Hazama, Brian Krock, Remy LeBouef, Omar Thomas. And then there are the big bands that are mainstays in New York: The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, JLCO. Things are on pause now, but nobody's hit the 'stop' button. Things are still happening. And while mediums might change for music consumption, the big band format will adapt. I don't think that it's going anywhere. It's here and it's here to stay."

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