Mention Indianapolis, and chances are good that eight out of ten people will associate the central Indiana city with motor sports, or sports in general (lest we forget about the Indianapolis Colts or Indiana Pacers). For an ardent, longtime jazz fan, Indy brings to mind some of the mighty-talented musicians who were raised and cut their musical teeth there, including brothers Wes, Buddy and Monk Montgomery, Slide Hampton, J.J. Johnson, David Baker, Freddie Hubbard and Melvin Rhyne to name but a few.
The list ought to begin with 1940s and ‘50s piano player Erroll Grandy, who was considered the city’s founding father of jazz. A listen or two to Dragonfly will ensure you also add pianist-composer Steve Allee to the top-of-mind Indy jazz roster.
Dragonfly is Allee’s sixth national jazz release as a leader, and the second CD in as many years from Allee’s trio with bassist Bill Moring and drummer Tim Horner, who were also featured on 2007’s Colors. While this is a relatively new player combination, their relationships and history helped them gel into a cohesive, empathetic musical voice. Saxophonists Rich Perry and Rob Dixon are special guests on select tracks.
The Steve Allee-Bill Moring music history goes back 25 years to when Bill played in Steve’s Indianapolis-based big band before taking his bass talents to New York. They reconnected several years ago. “It was like resuming a conversation in mid-sentence after some years apart,” Steve says. He began working with Tim Horner in bassist Rufus Reid’s quintet on a gig in Chicago and immediately fell in love with his sound and rhythmic mastery.
When Steve learned that Horner and Moring live about five houses apart in Teaneck, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from the Big Apple, this trio possibility felt right. “It works well because we’re so good at reading each other’s minds,” Steve says. On parts of Dragonfly, you’re also likely to hear some of the distinct Indianapolis rhythmic and harmonic sound – a straight eighth-note lilt over the rhythm – that added a distinct musical flavor to the playing of Erroll Grandy, the Montgomery brothers and J. J. Johnson, as well as Slide Hampton and Mel Rhyne, who still have that feel today.
Steve, who was playing piano in Buddy Rich’s big band at age 19 when he was drafted into military service during the Vietnam War, has had a long, steady career as a player, composer and music director. He’s also written soundtracks for TV and film, including "New York In The Fifties” and “Something To Cheer About." His most recent jazz performances have included work in the bands of Randy Brecker, John Clayton, David “Fathead” Newman, Rich Perry and Rufus Reid.
I mention the TV and film soundtrack work because that form of composition includes capturing or reinforcing important moods or visual elements that are taking place. On many of the Dragonfly tracks, including the title song, Allee’s writing gives the music a very strong visual flavor.
“Bus To Belmopan,” which features Maria Schneider Orchestra/Village Vanguard Orchestra mainstay Rich Perry on tenor saxophone, is set to a Cuban-style rhythm. Steve’s writing was inspired by a bus ride in Belize on a teaching and performing jazz tour. As they traveled to the Central American country’s capital city, “the bus wound through the mountains and the rainforest picking up passengers along the way,” he says. “We began with just a few travelers but by the time we arrived there were more than 100 passengers, along with some birds, chickens and turkeys.” It sounds and feels like we’re listening not just to music, but to an amazing journey.
Steve now lives in the country outside Indianapolis. His home and studio space is on property that includes a small pond that attracts a variety of dragonflies. Steve wrote “Dragonfly” to capture the uplifting light feeling he gets around the tiny creatures. During his introduction and solos, you can almost here the beautiful insect, shimmering in one of about six different colors as it dances across the surface of a glassy pond, occasionally darting through the air to examine something else of interest.
“Somewhere” is one of just three tracks here not written by Steve. The Leonard Bernstein song from “West Side Story” ranks as one of the great romantic standards of the mid-20th century. Steve reharmonized it with some new chords to give it a bit of a fresh, personal feel. His delicate and pensive solo introduction is gorgeous. The sparest backing from Tim Horner’s brushes and mallets, and a hint of bass from Bill Moring keep this beautiful ballad floating along.
“Yummy,” the second feature for Rich Perry, is imbued with an inherent funkiness that Rich locks into from the start. Steve thinks of it as a “happy-go-lucky modern-day boogaloo” along the lines of Lee Morgan’s classic tune “The Sidewinder.” It also shows that Steve’s writing has a very strong blues influence that he credits to his exposure to Buddy Montgomery and Horace Silver.
“Morning Glory” is another one of Steve’s visual treats. You can hear the vine growing like topsy, its flowers reaching for the sun, and thickening the maze of flowers below, the challenge put on hold each evening as the sun sets. Bill Moring has a beautiful bass solo here on the vamp, just before the sunshine/growth mode returns.
Steve is a big fan of the compositional strength of the English rock band Coldplay, and decided to include “X & Y,” the dreamy title track to the album that became the group’s first U.S. chart-topper – and 2005’s best-selling album worldwide. “That particular song really caught my ear,” Steve says. “I listened to it and immediately heard a different jazz interpretation.” The trio locks in here with solid interplay.
The next three tracks comprise a Dedication Suite to three jazz masters who Steve feels touched him in a profound way with their music and their playing. With the distinct sections he is able to illuminate each of his dedications to celebrate: Bill Evans’ introspective approach and a beautiful warm touch on the piano, Thad Jones’ insight into harmony, song forms and orchestration imbued with deep human character, and Oscar Peterson’s swinging drive and virtuosic technique.
“Conversation with Bill” is reminiscent both of Evans’ touch, sparkling clarity and improvisational variations. Steve says it was inspired by a vivid dream in which he was talking with Evans about the nuances of playing jazz piano. It was vivid dream. Unfortunately I asked what seemed to be an insignificant question and… poof… the dream was over,” he says. “While I was in the service I got a chance to see Bill perform five nights in a row. I also had the opportunity to hang out with him and talk about music and life. He was a wonderful, thoughtful guy, a very special person.”
“Thaddeus” celebrates Thad Jones’ big band arranging style, which often featured minor seconds and major sevenths in his voicings, creating long, powerful chords with bite. Steve said he considers Jones to have been “one of the true writing masters of the 20th century.”
Steve dedicated “If I Were A Bell” to the late, great Oscar Peterson because the arrangement and style he adapted for this piece felt like Peterson’s style. Note the rollicking swing and many distinct melodic accents, as if the piano were indeed a bell. ”Oscar was one of the few people, like Art Tatum, who almost made me want to change instruments,” Steve says.
Recording artist Rob Dixon stops by with his sax to help the trio wind up the session with “Hip Factor.” This more contemporary piece, originally recorded on Steve’s Mirage CD, features Steve here on electric keyboard. It sounds hip and more than a little bluesy, and you can tell the band found it fun to play – note the great mid-tune unison playing by Rob and Steve.
From start to finish, Dragonfly makes it clear that this is a band in which each of the players finds their interaction to be exhilarating. Much like the vivid imagery Steve captured from the bus ride through Belize, this trio is all about making the most of the journey – as the best jazz should.
– Ken Franckling, April 2008
(Ken Franckling, longtime jazz columnist for United Press International, is a contributing writer-photographer for JAZZIZ, JazzTimes, Hot House, Jazz Improv, All About Jazz-New York and AllAboutJazz.com.)