Michael Jefry Stevens — Brass Tactics (Konnex, 2016)
Well known for his piano work in long-running bands like the Fonda/Stevens Group and Gebhard Ullmann’s Conference Call, Michael Jefry Stevens turns out to have a soft spot for the brass family.
He got his start back in grade school playing the trombone, and he wrote this set of compositions specifically for a brass-heavy band: two trumpets, two horns, and Stevens’ own piano.
Brass stuffs your ear and consumes your attention, and Stevens doesn’t resist this. Much of the album has the four horns up front, with Stevens’ piano playing along in an almost percussive role, mimicking the clipped, non-resonant sounds of brass.
Elsewhere, his compositions use horns to set the stage until the piano arrives in a starring role, curving through the melody as if navigating a maze.
Stevens’ compositions apply the brass in a few different ways. “Temperature Rising” is a funky groove that keeps the beat even as the music dives into a colorful group improv. It reminds me a little of David Byrne’s Music for the Knee Plays.
“Variables” and “12 Chatham Road” use strategies that feel closer to classical experiments. The former is like a percussive game, with the horns pecking out composed, interlocking lines, getting gradually louder until the piano comes in with the same pecking approach.
“12 Chatham” splits the horns: two in a punchy rhythm, two playing long tones of melody. They make way for a serious and flowing piano interlude,
Then there’s “To the Glory,” which puts the horns in a slow, reverent mood — think of the closing credits to a film, with some piano in a jazz “color” to brighten the scene. It’s more fond remembrance than mourning.
Brass Tactics also includes four improvisations with titles based on temperatures. “Twenty Degrees Farenheit” is appropriately icy and distant, with bass piano notes against a frigid trumpet.”Forty Degrees Celsius” is warmer and percolating, with the horns dancing and weaving while Stevens adds some ghostly piano texture underneath.
What’s surprising is the quietude that lingers over the album. The band almost feels a sextet, because in addition to the brass and the piano, your attention gets drawn to the air. The absence of bass, drums, or chord instruments forces you to reckon with the blank spaces between those brass notes, whether they’re puffed bursts or the longer, elegant tones of a track like “For Alban Berg.”