Connections: White Rocket & Fonda/Stevens

Fonda/Stevens Group — Memphis (Playscape, 2009)

White Rocket — White Rocket (Diatribe, 2009)

In listening to some incoming music for the radio station, I came across an interesting matchup: The veterans of the Fonda/Stevens Group and the newbies of White Rocket.

They’re both very good examples of inside/out jazz, with emphasis on the “out” part.  Fonda/Stevens has been doing this for 15 years, in a couple of different incarnations.  Their music uses contemporary jazz as a basis, with Michael Jefry Stevens’ piano chords painting a breezy coolness — but they round out the quartet/quintet with soloists who are prone to wild free-jazz excursions.  On Memphis, that’s Herb Robertson, trumpeter extraordinaire, who delivers his usual tricks, including rapid-fire mumbles as a way of comping.  It was no surprise that I enjoyed Memphis, given that Fonda/Stevens has a well established sound that doesn’t disappoint.

Right after listening, I gave White Rocket a spin, and that was a surprise: similar lineup, similar philosophy, but a younger edge to the music.

White Rocket is a trio of piano, trumpet, drums — so, minus the bass, they’re a match for the current Fonda/Stevens lineup.  They’ve got a similar musical outlook: jazz base, free-jazz knowledge, risk-taking compulsions.

But White rocket feels younger. Some of this comes in obvious doses: They play faster, and they’ve got a smart-alecky streak.  A track like “Susan Strya” goes through strong, soaring lines before coming to a dead halt for a drum solo that starts at subliminal volumes.  “Recent Events” is full of bombastic pulses but starts off with some long pauses, little practical jokes that dot the introductory theme.

Fonda/Stevens can get cooking, too, as on tracks like “Yes This Is It.”  But they do it in a more cushiony, polished way — which partly has to do with production choices and maybe access to a better studio, but is also the by-product of the deep layers of experience among these players.  That’s mostly a good thing.

I’m not saying Memphis is complacent. It’s just that in a lot of spots, White Rocket captured my ear more completely.  The two represent similar ideas executed by, simply enough, different sets of people.  White Rocket’s got plenty of fresh ideas, and Greg Felton can certainly play in that lovely autumntime piano mode that Stevens favors.  You’d be hard pressed, at a brief glance, to tell which album the track “His Story” came from, and you can take that as a compliment in either direction.