A Blazing Big Band Album and a Low-Key Trio Show From Pianist Steven Feifke

by delarue

If you’re interested in checking out a musician in an intimate setting, why would you want to listen to his big band album? Because it shows how far he can take an idea and keep it interesting. Steven Feifke’s first big band album, Kinetic – streaming at Spotify – was one of those thousands of releases which were on track to come out in 2020 but didn’t hit the web until a year later…and still pretty much went down the memory hole. And that’s too bad, because Feifke’s compositions are ambitiously tuneful, colorful and have a sly sense of humor. For now, you can catch the pianist leading a trio on August 10 at Mezzrow, where he’s doing two sets at 7:30 and a little after 9; cover is $25 cash at the door.

The band – a revolving cast of characters – open the album with the title track, the bandleader spiraling and stabbing right off the bat with a chromatic snarl echoed by blasts from the brass. Leading a frenetically bluesy drive, he sets up a hard-hitting solo from trumpeter Gabriel King Medd followed by a vaudevillian couple of breaks from drummer Ulysses Owens.

Trumpeter Benny Benack III’s smoky muted lines kick off the cinematic, noir-tinged Unveiling of a Mirror, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas handing off briefly to Alexa Tarantino’s flute. After Benack takes his plunger out, the group hit a brassy swing, dip into some gorgeously gusty Ellingtonian harmonies, then tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon picks it up again. The intro is 180 degrees from what you might think.

Misterioso rising energy also pervades The Sphinx, although there is a good, long joke early on. Alto saxophonist Lucas Pino chooses his spots, sometimes coyly during a lull; the tensely pulsing, Mingus-esque drive toward to another counterintuitive coda is one of the album’s high points. Veronica Swift sings the first of the standards, Until the Real Thing Comes Along, anchored by ambered shades of low brass, more black-and-tan reed harmonies and a sotto-voce swing from bassist Dan Chmielinski. Alto saxophonist Andrew Gould’s flurries against shifting banks of brass and reeds brings the tune to cruising altitude.

Feifke takes a tantalizingly brief, McCoy Tyner-esque opening solo in Word Travels Fast, a playful latin-tinged shuffle, spiced with devious quotes and animated solos from Medd, Pino and drummer Jimmy Macbride through to the album’s most anthemic coda.

Bright brass, shifting meters, a soaring Gould solo and a fiery flurry of individual voices over Feifke’s stern forward drive threaten to go off the rails but never quite do in the next track, Woolongong, It also has the album’s best joke.

Feifke’s big band version of Nica’s Dream is brisk and latinized; Benack goes from goofy to gruff as Tarantino shadows him. Swift returns to the mic over a hypnotic pedalpoint as a gorgeously dynamic stride through On the Street Where You Live gets underway. Trombonist Robert Edwards’ good cheer sets up Gutauskas’ ruminative solo as the blaze flares and flickers behind him.

The goofiest number here is Midnight Beat, which seems to be a satirically beefed-up take on cheesy 80s funk-fusion. Dillon takes centerstage in the warmly benedictory finale, Closure. It’s a memorable project from a cast that also includes trumpeters Max Darché and John Lake, trombonists Jeffery Miller, Armando Vergara and Jennifer Wharton, guitarist Alex Wintz, drummers Joe Peri and Bryan Carter.