Vocalist Wendy Jones and jazz pianist Michael Jefry Stevens presented a first-rate concert Sunday evening in the intimate Piano Emporium Concert Room in South Asheville. The program included ten selections, all composed by Stevens, eight of them "music with words." Most of the songs were newly composed or instrumentals that had been recently revised to include a vocal line. The lyrics of four of the songs were by Kathleen Sannwald; in the other four the composer was his own lyricist.
The audience was regrettably small, with fewer than a dozen people taking advantage of this opportunity to hear a lot of new music. Perhaps it was timing; the CVNC calendar listed fifteen musical events in Western North Carolina for this December weekend, and twelve of them had Christmas themes. A jazz concert without "Jingle Bell Rock" apparently didn’t stand a chance amidst all the Christmas nostalgia being offered!
Stevens' music displays a compositional style that varies from straight-forward blues to a sophisticated chromaticism that reminds this listener of German lieder updated for the 21st century. Let’s examine the ten pieces.
“The Money Thing” opened the concert. It lies somewhat in the tradition of Cole Porter with its sophisticated and saucy lyrics. The second piece, “Little Bird” is a gem. In her introductory remarks, Jones had mentioned that Stevens’ music sometimes reminds her of Hugo Wolf, and this piece demonstrates a crossover between the jazz world and the classical German Lieder tradition. This was an art song for piano and voice, and a very good one. The audience was then given relief from the complexity of “Little Bird” with a simple blues number, “Midnight Blues.”
Two world premieres came next. “What a Dance,” with clever lyrics by Sannwald, has counter melodies and hemiolas incorporated into the interwoven piano part. This was followed by a recent revision of a sixteen-year-old work. What had formerly been a piece for jazz piano was now turned into a piano-and-voice prayer for the children of the world entitled “What About the Future?” Among the many compositional features were passages of parallel fifths that resembled plainsong and cluster chords that evoked chimes. The theme of prayer is ever-present in this important work, perhaps the finest of the evening.
Again, blues were offered as a relaxing interlude following a challenging work. This time the bluesy lyrics, by Sannwald, offered amusing opinions about the problems that men give to women and a refrain of “I’m not looking for a man.” Another older instrumental piece, “Winter Lilacs,” has been rewritten with vocal content. Performed here with voice and piano, it also exists in a septet version that adds bass, drums, trumpet, cello, and vibraphone.
Stevens then played two of his recent solo piano works, “Liquid Cage” and “Raga.” The first work deviates greatly from our familiar diatonic scale, with elements of bitonality and chromaticism and possibly some modal writing; the second used more conventional jazz chords. The performance quality in these works (which are on an iPad and are still under development) was not up to the standards of other works on the program; I felt that Stevens was not yet comfortable with this music.
Jones returned to the stage for a final number, “Highway Blues,” with lyrics again by Sannwald. If you missed the concert, you can hear this number by purchasing the CD Wendy Jones Quartet at Stevens’s web site. The rest of the vocal music on this program was hot off the table of the composer and hasn’t yet been released on record. As the saying goes, “You should have been there.”