Drummer - Percussionist - Educator - Composer

Memphis Review for jazzchicago.net


  • Herb Robertson - trumpet
  • Michael Jefry Stevens - piano
  • Joe Fonda - bass
  • Harvey Sorgen - drums

Together nearly 20 years, the Fonda Stevens Group has been thrilling audiences in Europe for years, but have been less well known here in America. Recently, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens has been making a concerted effort to make the group's material available to the American public and hopefully this will increase the awareness and appreciation of these exceptional musician/composers. The new release - Memphis, is named for Stevens' location (the other three are still in New York) - where he relocated several years ago. The record opens powerfully with Fonda's avant-leaning "In the Whitecage" - a tribute to Fonda and Stevens' former band leader saxophonist mark Whitecage. Stevens' enchanting "For My Brother" pulls things back toward the melodic and contemplative. Fonda's bowed bass intro is enough to bring tears to your eyes, while Stevens playing offers a wealth of depth and creativity which simply must be heard. Trumpeter Herb Robertson mutes his horn here, while the final member of the quartet - drummer Harvey Sorgen is a master of intuative expression on the drums - mixing Paul Motion/Brian Blade-style creativity with his duties as timekeeper.

Fonda and Stevens basically alternate the composition duties, so the bassist's rewarding "Looking for the Lake" follows. This number starts off as fairly straight-ahead hard bop number, but mutates into a thorny free form middle section. Stevens, here again proves himself worthy as one of the pre-eminent pianists carrying on the tradition of the late Andrew Hill, with his impressionistic and inventive forays, while Sorgen sets off a few explosions of his own. Stevens' hard-charging "Changing Tides" is a rhythmic and melodic delight with some of Robertson's best work. His playing at times is as fiery as Freddie Hubbard, but his tone is closer to Miles. Stevens again thrills with his solo, and the interplay between the members is on a subconsious level. "The Path" proves Fonda can play nice when he wants to, while his "Yes, This is It" returns to stretching boundaries. "There is a Very Fine Line Between Your Life and Mine" takes thngs into a surprisingly whole new realm - with the group singing along - in a manner reminiscent of AACM, Pharoh Sanders and Sun Ra - in between lengthy free jazz excursions. Steven's haunting "Whale Majesty" sounds like it may have been written around whale sounds and the group mimics the deep sea movement and sounds of these majestic creatures with their instruments. The group changes it up again on Steven's blusey "Memphis Ramble" - which bounces along jauntily and shows the wide range of skills these players have, while also making the listener smile at the Cab Calloway sing-along that tells the story of Stevens' move to Memphis - following his wife who teaches poetry at Rhodes College. Finally, the memorable "Break Song" takes the band out on a high note with great solos from all. Make note: this is one of the finest jazz quartets around today and deserving of greater respect and attention.