Steprans’ Hip Little Quintet Cooks

Steprans cover

AJIVTAL / STEPRANS: Shades of White. Luna’s Tune. Ajivtal. Rebirth. Chambre No. 5. One for Vedady O. Suite des Thèmes Lettons. Une Autre Original. FISHER: That Ole Devil Called Love / Janis Steprans Quintet: Steprans, a-sax/s-sax/t-sax/cl; Gabriel Hamel, gtr; Geoff Lapp, pn; Adrian Vedady, bs; Andre White, dm / Effendi FND145

Saxophonist-composer Janis Steprans is of Latvian descent though born in Montreal. He apparently started playing the alto sax in high school, later studying at McGill University with Gerry Danovitch and playing in the big band, combos and sax quartets there. After winning the concerto competition in 1975, he attended the New England Conservatory in 1982-84 where he studied with Joe Allard and also played a concert in George Russell’s Living Time Orchestra.

This album is best described as “cozy” jazz. The basic aesthetic is very similar to the modal jazz pioneered in the 1950s by the likes of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Tony Scott, but although the basic style of the music breaks no new ground it is very fine music nonetheless. Steprans plays with a laid-back beat that sounds as natural as breathing, thus producing music that is both comfortable and intriguing. All of the innovation is in the solos, which are all of a very high order. Although the leader is obviously the star of the show, he does not hog the spotlight but allows his sidemen to comment on and interject when they feel the urge to. Interestingly, bassist Adrian Vedady is one of the most inventive of Steprans’ sidemen, playing solo after solo of breathtaking originality.

The work that gives its name to this album was inspired by Sonny Rollins’ famous composition, Airegin, which is Nigeria spelled backwards. Ajivtal is the name of the country of Steprans’ ancestors, Latvija, also spelled backwards. As the notes indicate, “The piece is built around a previously imagined musical motif, an exotic motif evoking Russian, Middle Eastern and Jewish music. While writing this piece, I was reflecting on my own origins and how they influence my music.” But the odd Eastern rhythms and backbeats only last through the first chorus; we then move on to a straightahead medium-uptempo swing beat with the leader playing a nice modal solo on alto.

Rebirth is another mid-tempo swinger, on which both guitarist Gabriel Hamel and pianist Geoff Lapp sound particularly in their element. Chambre No. 5 is a nice ballad in B-flat with an interesting modal structure on which Steprans plays a nice, cool tenor. By contrast, One for Vedady O is another swinger with an unusual leading melody and rhythm, in which Lapp really shines…but so too, once again, does bassist Vedady.

Suite des Thèmes Lettons has an odd, swaggering backbeat taken at a slowish pace: surely one of the most unusual pieces on the album. Steprans is back on soprano sax here, leading his troupe through the music’s melody which sounds extended by an extra couple of beats (it sounds to me like 7/4). The leader plays both soprano and tenor on this one, switching saxes so quickly that it almost sounds like two different players coming in one after the other. The tempo picks up around the five-minute mark, just a bit, as we lead into an excellent guitar solo by Gabriel Hamel which is interesting and creative without pandering to the rock crowd, despite a few hot blues licks thrown in for fun. This in turn leads back to the leader, on soprano again, now playing in a light, airy manner reminiscent of Paul Winter. 

The lone standard on this set is Doris Fisher’s That Old Devil Called Love, on which Steprans surprisingly switches to clarinet. His playing is cool, however, recalling Jimmy Giuffre rather than Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. The rest of the band sounds very relaxed and comfortable in this piece, as if they’d been playing it for years, though Lapp’s single-note piano solo with occasional left-hand chord interjections gives it a more modern bent.

The program ends with another Steprans piece, Un autre Original, which begins like something out of Ornette Coleman’s book, an angular melody without an evident home key. After the intro, however, it settles down a bit, moving around E-flat until it finally lands there. The leader is back on tenor for this one and dominates the first half before Lapp comes in on piano, picking up from where the leader left off, followed by a chase chorus between Vedady and drummer Andre White. It’s a nice, joyous finish to an overall fine album, one you should explore.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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