A Rare, Distinctive Male Jazz Vocal Record From Michael Stephenson
Michael Stephenson is a rarity: an individualist male jazz singer. In a world that’s probably about 95 percent women at this point, he distinguishes himself with his no-nonsense baritone and devious sense of humor. You would think that more dudes with his talents would have gone into the field, but at the moment Stephenson pretty much has the floor to himself. And he’s a competent tenor saxophonist as well. His latest album Michael Stephenson Meets the Alexander Claffy Trio is streaming at Bandcamp.
This is jazz as entertainment. He and the group – Claffy on bass, Julius Rodriguez on piano and Itay Morchi on drums, with special guest Benny Benack III on trumpet – are often a party in a box. They open the record with a mostly bass-and-vocal duo version of Sweet Lorraine: Stephenson shows off that he can cut loose on the mic in a split second, and that’s about it. Then things get really amusing with a slyly swinging take of Ray Charles’ Greenbacks, which as Stephenson sings it, are coated in chlorophyll…or maybe something else. No spoilers. Stephenson and Benack’s solos give it a muscular midsection.
Rodriguez and Morchi spiral around, building symphonic intensity to introduce a tightly pulsing version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Happening Brother?, giving voice to indomitability in the face of unrest. How times change, huh?
The group reinvent When a Man Loves a Woman as a straightforward midtempo swing tune: Rodriguez adds judicious gospel touches, with an exuberant solo from Benack. Stephenson and Claffy build intensity with a rubato-ish intro to On the Street Where You Live. then they swing it with a low-key simmer, Rodriguez’s hard-hitting solo giving way to Claffy’s balletesque break.
Stephenson resists reaching for the rafters in a slowly crescendoing take of the Tennessee Waltz, Rodriguez reinventing it with a neoromantic gleam. Stephenson’s smoky, purposeful tenor solo gives Benack a springboard to go for broke with his mute in Ain’t That Love, then he moves to the mic for an emphatic last chorus.
Polka Dots and Moonbeams is probably the last number you would expect a guy to sing: the band give it a lush nocturnal atmosphere, but this is a tough sell, and it’s out of place on what’s otherwise a good party record. On the other hand, the group’s cascading cover of Dionne Warwick’s Can’t Hide Love is a smashing success, Rodriguez fueling the inferno.
The group have fun with Ben Webster’s Did You Call Her Today?, keeping it stealthy until Benack’s trumpet pierces the surface like a missile from a submarine. Stephenson saves his most emotive vocal for his closing duo take of For All We Know with Rodriguez. It’s anybody’s guess where Stephenson is playing next – he’s quite the mystery man on the web – but Benack is leading a quintet at Smalls at 10:30 PM and then hosting the midnight jam session afterward on April 27. Cover is $25 cash at the door.