Generations Quartet: Fonda/Stevens Plus Oliver Lake

Generations QuartetFlow (Not Two, 2016)

generations-flowThe name “Generations Quartet” apparently refers to the youth of drummer Emil Gross, who’s found himself in a supergroup of veterans who’ve helped advance the creative language of jazz.

Me, I prefer to consider the name as a reference to concepts echoing down from past generations, mixing with today’s ideas to create a musical spirit for tomorrow.

Bassist Joe Fonda and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens have been partners for decades, not only in the longstanding Fonda/Stevens group but in bands such as Gebhard Ullmann’s Conference Call.  Their calling card is steeped in the traditions of the ’60s, colored with rich creative touches from the worlds of free jazz and free improvisation.

Lake — who recently came through the Bay Area for the Outsound New Music Summit — is familiar with all those languages as well, of course. It all adds up to a depth and reverence in these tracks, taken from live sets in Germany last year.

They do exercise their free-jazz muscles. The track “Flow” features disjoint sax lines, leading into some crooked-line free-for-all playing — high-energy stuff. “Rollin'” is the basic, midtempo jam that the title suggests, but against its bluesy air, Lake is “rolling” at a slightly different pace, playing sour tones and a slower counter-rhythm. His solo eventually works its way into blazing free territory; the groove fractures and yet continues (yeoman’s work by Joe Fonda on bass, freeing up Gross’ drumming).

“Mantra #2” is the one that really echoes down from the ages, with a delicious, deep bassline redolent of that ’60s eternal-seeking vibe. Lake uses that backdrop to build some heartfelt soloing. It isn’t perfectly polished (this is a live take, after all), but I love the way you can hear Lake feeling out the song and the moment, working many different angles to build his statement.

“Me Without Bella” deserves a mention, too — a 17-minute exploration that starts as a dirge, eventually building into a midtempo, soul-searching groove. After an arresting bass solo from Fonda, the band really kicks into gear, with Lake in buzzing, fiery mode and Stevens and drummer Gross pounding away — all without losing control of that tempered groove.

Michael Jefry Stevens – Brass Tactics

Michael Jefry StevensBrass Tactics (Konnex, 2016)

stevens-brassWell 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.”