Joining Stéphane Spira in his New Playground

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NEW PLAYGROUND / SPIRA: Peter’s Run. Gold Ring Variations – New York Windows intro. New York Windows. Underground Ritual. Nocturne (Song for my Son). New Playground. Kaleidoscope. Solid Wood / Stéphane Spira, s-sax; Joshua Richman, pno/Fender Rhodes; Steve Wood, bs; Jimmy MacBride, dm / Jazzmax JM80403

Stéphane Spira is a self-taught musician. He pursued an engineering degree, spent some time as an engineer in Saudi Arabia, then headed back to his hometown of Paris to pursue music full-time. Quite an interesting background!

A traditionalist, Spira’s music and playing are both very centrist in style, but great fun to listen to. He is not, however, so much a swing or hard bop player as sort of a ‘60s cool-school sort of guy, and his compositions employ several of the traits one hears in a lot of modern jazz nowadays, i.e., somewhat modal construction and amorphous melodic lines, but lyricism and swinging are prominent features of both his writing and his playing.

Indeed, Spira’s tone is one of his finest features. I’ve heard a great many soprano saxists in recent years, but none who play the instrument with the liquid richness that Spira draws from his instrument. Just listen to him in the Gold Ring Variations, for instance, and you’ll be struck by the richness of his sound, almost like an alto sax. And on this track he is particularly inventive. In addition, the relaxation of his playing rubs off on his bandmates; only pianist Richman gets really busy in his solos, although not so much that he spoils the delicate balance that is set up.

Indeed, as one listens to this CD, one is not so much aware of individual compositions so much as what seems like a continuous flow of music that is interrelated, like a suite, and it is this conception that imbues all of the music, although Underground Ritual and New Playground have their own sort of funky jazz vibe that I liked very much. Oddly, the one thing I did not care for was Wood’s bowed solo in Nocturne; not that the note-choices were poor, but his tone sounded a bit sour to me. I did, however, like all of his pizzicato solos. Solid Wood, the most uptempo number on the CD, makes a fine finish.

A very nice album, perfect for summertime jazz listening.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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