Chip Stephens Trio

Stephens was a key factor in the success of trombonist Curtis Fuller's two most recent CDs (Down Home and I Will Tell Her), but it is on his own fourth release as a leader, a trio date with bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer Joel Spencer, that the pianist's full prowess is revealed. The title, Relevancy, is significant in how it relates to events that have influenced Stephens' playing and outlook on life. Stephens' father John passed away in 2012, and this album is dedicated "with my deepest respect, love, and adoration" to both him and mother Rachel. In May of 2008, Stephens and his two sons were involved in a very serious car accident, and while all have since recovered, Stephens was in a coma for five days and endured a long and arduous rehabilitation process to overcome his severe injuries. The pianist writes in his notes, "What's relevant is being truly present in every moment of your life...learning from your mistakes, constantly striving to be better, growing, challenging yourself, time with family, with loved ones, lasting relationships, music, seeking true balance in your life--these, are relevant." Stephens' go-for-it attitude seems to rub off on Carroll and Spencer, and their exchange of energy and focused interaction as they navigate an engagingly varied song list help to make this a top-notch piano trio session.

The opener, Carla Bley's "Syndrome" (also known as "Wrong Key Donkey"), simply sizzles from start to finish, the syncopated theme and its development a joy and marvel. Stephens' hard bopping solo mixes winding extended runs with forceful chords and two-handed counterpoint and his trades with the powerfully thematic Spencer are seamlessly attuned. The standard "Like Someone In Love" is taken at the usual tempo by the trio, but otherwise Stephens' voicings and subtle alterations of the melody lead him to present fresh ideas in his solo as well, especially harmonically. Carroll's thoughtful solo and a variegated dialogue between Stephens and Spencer also elevate this 9:23 interpretation way above the norm. "Somewhere Before the End" has a spiritual essence in its yearning lyricism, moving on to a more reflective and progressive contrapuntal interlude until a bluesy groove is gradually established. Composer Stephens' long solo displays his feel for the blues, in addition to Bill Evans' preferences in terms of chords and rumbling circular lines, while bringing plenty of his own inventiveness to the fore. Spencer follows with both authority and precision.

The Rodgers/Hart tune "This Funny World" is given a compelling 8:15 solo piano treatment that accentuates Stephens' lavish piano sound and emotional sensitivity, and appears to address his experience of, recovery, and lessons learned from the auto accident as much as the more to-the-point "A Day in May" that follows. Beauty, wonderment, heartbreak, and gratitude are all present in his memorable musings. "A Day In May" is specifically intended to describe "the seriousness of it via a twelve-tone row, then recovery, rehabilitation, success, pain, confusion, and walking again." The tone row conveys an eerie apprehension, and Stephens' piano transports the piece through a slew of emotions both reserved and assertive, utilizing trickling, elongated passages and starkly struck chords. Spencer's tension-building solo artfully blends trap and bass drum textures.

"C Hip's Blues" was first heard on Fuller's Down Home CD, and is a straight ahead blues romp reminiscent of some of pianist Mal Waldron's distinctive early blues-based compositions (check out Gene Ammon's 1958 Blue Gene album for several examples). The theme's blues progression is investigated in myriad ways in Stephens' lengthy solo, such as chordal segments, vibrant scampers, and harmonic variations. Carroll's steadfast excursion and Spenser's responsive trades with the leader precede the surging reprise. Stephens as a child heard Mario Lanza sing the Cahn/Brodszky tune "Be My Love," but Spencer's deft and crisp drumming immediately lets you know this is a "jazzed up" version. The pianist's swinging, unrelenting elucidation is lyrically entrancing, and Carroll works in tandem with Spencer to keep things cooking, and also offers up a tonally adventurous solo. Once again we are gifted with a communicative piano/drums give-and-take before the close. Bill Evans' "34 Skidoo" serves as a fitting finale, as by then Stephens' influence by Evans has been made apparent. Yet Stephens up-tempo take is personalized and noteworthy in its own right, with constructs and a driving momentum that are at times more suggestive of McCoy Tyner.

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Scott Albin