A Tuneful Two-Horn Postbop Effort from Saxophonist Stephane Spira
French-born, New York-based saxophonist Stephane Spira has an interesting backstory. An engineer by trade, he pursued his passion for jazz in wee-hours clubs in his native Paris before relocating to New York to play fulltime. His previous efforts in the studio have included collaborations with trumpeter Lionel Belmondo and pianist Giovanni Mirabassi. Spira’s fourth album as a bandleader, In Between, features more of the strikingly translucent, disarmingly catchy compositions that have characterized his work.
The performances here center around a tight harmonic interplay and lively, intuitive interaction between Spira and trombonist (and Steve Lacy collaborator) Glenn Ferris, anchored and spiced by a similarly integral rhythm section, Steve Wood on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. There’s irony in the album title, inspired by the cosmopolitan dynamic of a Paris-born bandleader in NYC, and the American-born, Paris-based Ferris. As usual, Spira matches a terse lyricism to a slightly smoky tone on tenor sax and a similarly thoughtful, considered, Steve Lacy-inspired clarity on soprano, all the while engaging the rest of the band both rhythmically and melodically throughout a diverse mix of numbers that span the emotional spectrum. In addition to nine originals here, Spira radically reinvents Duke Ellington’s Reflections in D as a mystical tone poem before swinging it hard, and transforms the Baden Powell/Vincius de Moraes classic Samba en Preludio into a haunting dirge driven by Wood’s starkly funereal arco work. The album winds up on a cleverly humorous note with Grounds 4 Dismissal, Wood’s wry, historically allusive joust for bass and drums.
The album’s opening track, Cosmaner, wastes no time in setting the stage with a wickedly catchy shuffle theme that’s equal part Rio and New Orleans, with nifty handoffs from tenor to trombone and Wood’s bass filling in all the implied melody. Likewise, Glenntleman serves as a bright feature for Ferris’ bluesy soulfulness. Dawn in Manhattan gives the group a long launching pad to build from balmy ambience to a slinky implied clave underpinning Spira’s warmly casual soprano and Ferris’ sly, low-down lines. In the same vein, Ferris channels Wycliffe Gordon in laid-back, drolly acerbic mode on the chromatically-fueled In Transit, divergent horn voicings coalescing to a lively conversation before Wood shifts from hypnotically circular riffage to resonant atmospherics.
Spira offers a nod to Coltrane on Flight, with its unexpected rhythmic shifts and purposeful tenor work over Blake’s flurrying, colorful volleys. The vivid ballad A Special Place has Ferris elegantly leading the band out of lushly misty Brazilian ambience into a purist blues ballad, Blake again playing colorist with his misterioso brushwork, Spira adding his signature spacious, judiciously considered phrasing.
N.Y. Time, a kinetic jazz waltz, has Spira leading an allusively moody modal groove, Ferris adding an incisive solo before Blake takes it shuffling into the shadows. With its shifting counterrhythms and tight, purist horn harmonies, the album’s title track alludes to Monk without being derivative. And the aptly titled Classic juxtaposes a bluesy Wood solo with a neat horn chart that diverges and then regroups, up to a triumphantly emphatic chorus: it’s “in the tradition” without being overly reverential, a quality that in many ways defines Spira’s work.
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