Steve Million’s Interesting Jazz

Million cover

JAZZ WORDS / MILLION: Heavens to Monkatroid. Mis’ry Waltz. Missing Page. Hymnal. Nika’s Changes. Cold Wind. Loss. The Way Home / Jim Gailloreto, fl/t-sax; Steve Million, pno; John Sims, bs; Juan Pastor, dm; Sarah Marie Young, voc / Self-produced CD

Steve Million, a Chicago-based jazz pianist-composer who grew up in Boonville, Missouri, His first jazz love was the Count Basie band, which he heard when he was eight years old, and he has only gone on from strength to strength.

The opener, Heavens to Monkatroid, is a perfect example. Using even freakier harmonies than Monk did, Million creates a surprisingly hot swinger on which Sarah Marie Young sings. And she’s no soft-voiced whisperer; she sings out, and she swings. So does this band, every single one of them, but particularly Jim Gailloreto on tenor sax and flute and Million himself on piano. It’s hard not to get enthusiastic about this music since it’s just so effervescent and energetic—a real counter to the sad, drippy laments that other “jazz” groups are turning out in response to Covid-19.

With that being said, I was a little leery of the title of Mis’ry Waltz, but Million infuses this with a strong blues feeling, producing a sort of slow 6 over 4 feeling, and Young again provides an excellent vocal, this time without much improvisation. And yes, once again Gailloreto’s tenor is superb; he doesn’t play a lot of notes and only goes “outside” occasionally, but his solos are so well structured and make so much musical sense that it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about him. Just a really, really good musician.

But if this disc is Young’s coming-out party, we should all put on our party hats and celebrate. This young woman can really SING, folks, and I don’t mean just a little. She has a clear, pure tone, impeccable diction that would be the envy of many a classical soprano, and an impeccable sense of time. Not even the complex 11/8 beat of Missing Page fazes her; she just keeps on going and does a great job on  each and every track. I foresee a great career for her, and sincerely hope that she is wise enough to keep the voice in the good shape it’s in now. Far too many singers nowadays, both jazz and classical, don’t work on their voices as their careers progress, with the result that their voices begin to show an unsteady flutter in four or five years and they are no longer as good. So to Sarah Marie Young I say, Listen to Ella, Sarah Vaughan, Cleo Laine and even, if you go back a few decades, Mildred Bailey. These were jazz singers who knew how to keep what they had and not let it deteriorate (well, in Sarah’s and Cleo’s cases, old age eventually caught up with them, but…they were good for a very long time).

As for the other pieces on this album, the only one I wasn’t really fond of was Hymnal; just a bit too much of a drippy ballad for my taste, and not a terribly interesting ballad at that, but I’m sure that some listeners will like it more than I did. Happily, the wonderful Nika’s Changes picks the mood (and the quality of music) up again. On this track, Young sings along with herself in one double-tracked passage, and Gailloreto again shines on tenor.

Cold Wind opens with ostinato bass over soft brushes and piano chords; it’s a ballad, but in this case an interesting one written in 3 with a very interesting melody line. Gailloreto plays a brief flute solo on this one behind the vocal, with other solos given to bassist John Sims, Million himself, and then a full chorus by Gailloreto. Loss is also a sort of ballad, but in a medium tempo with a bit more of a beat.

To a certain extent, I felt that Jazz Words was an album that started out like a house on fire but then cooled off quite a bit as it went along (sorry, but I’m  not into “hearts and dreams” songs), but for the most part Million’s lyrics are not maudlin and most of his tune constriction is interesting and worth hearing. A fine album, then, most especially for Young.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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