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Music Review: Steve Allee Trio – Dragonfly

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Last year we touched on a solid release by Steve Allee, Colours, where the seasoned Indianapolis-based pianist found delight in turning from crossover jazz to honest-to-goodness straight trio jazz. Allee must have really enjoyed making that record, because here we are less than a year later chatting up another Steve Allee Trio release, called Dragonfly.

As in Colours, Allee’s rhythm section remains Bill Moring on bass and Tim Horner on drums, and once again, Allee employs a smart blend of original compositions and covers that he reharmonizes into his own style. The one tweak in his approach this time around is the temporary expansion of his trio to include a sax player on three tracks. Nonetheless, Allee wisely doesn’t tinker with the good vibe he started on the prior album (with one exception that I’ll get to in a minute).

The proceedings get off to a spirited start with the Cuban-flavored “Bus To Belmopan.” Horner does such a great job playing Latin percussion on his drums that I was fooled into thinking there was a separate percussionist on this song. Rich Perry furnishes some soulful sax work before Allee launches into a powerful, sweeping solo that’s long on chops without being too showy about it. It sets the right tone for the the album as a whole.

“Dragonfly,” the song, is another demonstration of both Allee’s composing and instrumental prowess. It’s got an almost classical repeating pattern of descending notes; an eight-note rhythmic lilt that is a familiar trait of the Indianapolis jazz greats who’ve come before Allee (Erroll Grandy, Montgomery Brothers, J.J. Johnson, Melvyn Rhyne, etc.). So busy and yet so catchy, the title cut is hard to get out of my head.

“Somewhere” is the most solemn number in this batch of songs, and Allee gives this Leonard Bernstein song from “West Side Story” a minimal but affecting touch. “Yummy” changes the pace with a funky bluesy number that recalls Horace Silver’s and Lee Morgan’s boogaloos of the sixties. Perry once again contributes sax.

“Morning Glory” is a delicate number with a vaguely bossa nova rhythm. Allee plays over that well-constructed vamp superbly during his solo turn, as does Moring with his brief bass solo.

“X & Y,” the title song from the British rock band Coldplay’s American breakthrough album, is a gently waltzing ballad as interpreted here by the trio. It’s another example of Allee recognizing the jazz possibilities of a composition written for another genre.

As the album turns the corner into the final stretch, Allee launches what he calls a “Dedication Suite.” It’s a trio of distinct songs that comprise of meditations on three major musical influences of Allee’s:

“Conversation With Bill” captures the spirit of Bill Evans in both Allee’s intensely thoughtful playing and the quietly busy rhythm section that meshes so well with the pianist’s complex rhythmic pattern. Moring does a great job channeling the great Scott LaFaro on his solo turn.

“Thaddeus,” as in Thad Jones, salutes the late trumpeter, composer and arranger. Allee has particularly admired Jones’ sophisticated big band arranging acumen (Allee himself had once played in Buddy Rich’s big band while still a teen). Hearing this song, it’s not hard to imagine how well it would sound in a big band setting.
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The old classic “If I Were A Bell” is a paean to the just-deceased Oscar Peterson. Allee and Moring start the tune by playing the main melodic theme in unison, before Allee plays some spirited runs that are sure to make Oscar look down and smile from whatever corner of heaven he currently resides. Both Moring and Horner get their turns to add some pizazz as well, as the trio seem to be having a lot of fun playing this song.

The only letdown on this whole CD comes at the end. “Hip Factor,” which features some in-the-pocket saxophone by Rob Dixon, is a decent contemporary jazz track but is utterly out of place in this collection of acoustic, straight-ahead bop tunes. That last cut shouldn’t affect anyone’s purchasing decision on this CD though. The first nine selections make enough of a coherent, top-notch jazz record that the last one could easily be considered a “bonus” track tacked on as an extra.

Taken as a whole, however, Allee has taken the solid foundation he established on Colours and with increased rapport with his rhythm section, built on it. His songwriting and re-imaginings have taken strides forward, too, and they weren’t that bad to begin with. Contemporary jazz audiences have already known about Steve Allee; it’s time for the straight jazz crowd to stand up and take notice, too.

Dragonfly is available today.

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