Cellar Music Group
Sometimes just a couple of highly recognizable names will draw one to an album. Although familiar with Claffy and Benck III, it was Executive Producer Cory Weeds and Producer Jeremy Pelt that caught my attention and neither plays on this album featuring the tenor saxophonist and vocalist Michael Stephenson. This is the second collaborative effort between Pelt and Cellar Music Group and part of their joint initiative to highlight the voices of Black artists. Stephenson joins the Alexander Claffy trio with guest trumpeter Benny Benack III. Claffy is the bassist and arranger here and his trio mates are pianist Julius Rodriguez and drummer Itay Morchi. Stephenson, also known by his stage name Sonny Step, is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who has worked alongside acclaimed pop artists but wanted to show the jazz side of his artistry across an eclectic mix of highly recognizable “American” tunes.
Claffy and Stephenson have been friends for over twenty years but are recording together for the first time. Claffy, the accomplished bandleader and sideman and one of the most in-demand bassists worldwide, provided the inventive arrangements for this infectious release. As Stephenson says, “…this record encapsulates our many experiences growing together, while bringing our Philly soul to the hallowed grounds of the Rudy Van Gelder Studio.”
This is a well-chosen group of tunes from 20thcentury American composers that touch on the Great American Songbook but go beyond to include the music of Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and Nat King Cole, among others. Transformed through a jazz lens, tunes such as the impossibly slowed “Tennessee Waltz” and the upbeat tempo combined with Benack III’s trumpet solo in “When a Man Loves a Woman” make those two almost unrecognizable. The harmonics and stellar solos from Rodriguez, Stephenson on tenor, and Benack III on trumpet are often riveting but only add to Stephenson’s vocals which remain front and center throughout. He has a real flair for Ray Charles, swinging hard in “Greenbacks” and later in “Ain’t That Love,” the latter featuring an especially outstanding trumpet turn.
The vocalist connects deeply in his soulful take on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother?” to the extent that it poses the thought of how great it would be to hear this band perform Gaye’s album What’s Going On in its entirety. Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” is another stirring soulful vocal from Stephenson, imbued by devastating support from all three rhythm mates.
Traditional jazz tunes appear with “On the Street Where You Live,” where pianist Rodriguez especially shines on his solo as does Claffy. The other two in this vein are “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and “Did You Call Her Today,” the latter a Ben Webster tune that has Stephenson strictly playing tenor, reflecting his great feel for the instrument and the jazz idiom as he plays in unison with the trumpeter, listens to Claffy’s lyrical plucking and Benack III’s blistering solo, before unleashing his own swinging take. Stephenson’s dulcet vocal tones are a perfect fit for the closer, Nat King Cole’s “For All We Know.”
Claffy remarks “Never before has there been a male jazz vocalist at the forefront of the industry who also is deeply adept at the saxophone – Michael is exceptional.” Maybe we should have Claffy listen to another Philly friend of his, Joey
DeFrancesco, playing both tenor saxophone and vocalizing on his new album More Music. Okay, Joey D. is primarily an instrumentalist but the aside still stands. Nonetheless, this is as an intoxicating mix of jazz and vocals that you’ll find – a great mix of traditional jazz tunes and those we don’t often hear in a jazz context.
Please note that the digital and CD are already available, and the vinyl version awaits on October 15.
- Jim Hynes