Eastern Boundary Quartet (Konnex)
Conference Call – Poetry in Motion (CF 118)
Southern Excursion Quartet – Trading Post
Pianist Michael Jefry Stevens has enjoyed a prolific musical journey but collaboration could be seen as the inspiration behind his music. Each project Stevens participates in offers a different framework to explore his compositional and improvisational ideas.
On the eponymous debut of the Eastern Boundary Quartet, the music literally crosses international boundaries as Stevens, along with bassist Joe Fonda, collaborates with Hungarian musicians Balazs Bagyi (drums) and Mihaly Borbel (sax). This live recording is a musical quilt combining the spirit of jazz with the distinctive nature of Hungarian music. The disc begins with “Song for My Mother,” a Fonda composition, that starts off plaintively, building to an insistent crescendo and ending with masterful drum work. “The End Game,” a Latin-flavored Stevens piece, features a melodic, virtuosic solo from Fonda and on “Tuzugras/Fire Jumping,” the quartet exhibits an uncanny energy and drive. Rounding out the disc is an improvisational piece and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue”. With two American and two Hungarian musicians, the Eastern Boundary Quartet is a musical melting pot of the best kind.
For Andrew by Stevens’ trio with bassist Peter Herbert and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel is a showcase for Stevens the composer. Though the Miles Davis/Bill Evans classic “Nardis” and the Moross-Latouch composition “Lazy Afternoon” are included, the majority of the compositions belong to Stevens. “Spirit Song” exemplifies Stevens’ lyrical playing, “Waltz” is a propulsive piece that lets Siegel demonstrate his nuanced, expressive drumming and “The Lockout” is a playful, insistent tune with a march-like feel. “The River Po,” the closing track, begins with Herbert bowing in the upper registers, creating a dark, moody tone. The compositions exhibit various influences from modern and free jazz, but each tune has Stevens’ distinct stylistic stamp.
Conference Call, on the other hand, finds Stevens as part of a composing collective. All the members—Stevens, Fonda, reedman Gebhard Ullmann and drummer George Schuller—contribute compositions to Poetry in Motion. Stevens wrote the title track and the aptly named “Quirky Waltz”. Another standout track is Fonda’s “Next Step,” a kinetic composition that highlights the rhythm section. Schuller’s “Back To School” allows Ullmann to showcase his prodigious skills. The last tune, Ullmann’s “Desert…Bleue…East,” is a shape-shifting tour-de-force demonstrating the rhythmic interplay of the ensemble.
Stevens is also a part of the Southern Excursion Quartet, a collective of musicians living in the southeastern part of the United States (with saxist Don Aliquo, bassist Jonathan Wires and drummer Tom Giampietro.) True to its moniker, Trading Post has a distinctly southern feel. The Andrew Hill composition “Ashes” is languid, like a humid Tennessee summer afternoon. It builds in intensity, but never loses the relaxed feel. Giampietro’s “A Long and Lonely Nights Work” sounds like it could be heard drifting out of a jazz club on Beale Street. Stevens, who moved to Memphis after years in the New York City area, contributed two pieces to this CD, “For Wheeler” (dedicated to trumpeter Kenny) and “Spiritual,” the soulful closing track.