If you were among the jazz lovers lucky enough to see the Stephen Anderson Trio perform last weekend as part of this year’s Blowing Rock Jazz Society’s Second Sunday Concert Series, you witnessed one of the best jazz group’s in the Southeast.
The band entertained the audience with a great juxtaposition of jazz standards by the likes of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin with new original compositions by pianist Stephen Anderson.
The Stephen Anderson Trio has two albums out on Summit Records, with another one in the works. “Nation Degeneration,” the band’s second album, is one of those rare albums that will reaffirm your belief in jazz to move, inspire and astound its listeners.
Generally speaking, I’ve always found jazz to be one of those genres, like bluegrass, that is made more for the live setting than the recording studio. Improvised lines that may sound terrific live have a tendency to show their flaws or unoriginality under repeated listenings.
“Nation Degeneration” starts with a bang. The opening cut, “Left in a Red State,” zips along at a dizzying speed giving pianist Anderson, upright acoustic bassist Jeffrey Eckels and drummer Ross Pederson a chance to introduce themselves through some nifty fast chord progressions.
“Count Your Facts” finds the band in more of swinging mode, buoyed by Anderson’s tight Brubeck-ian chords and Eckels’ slip-sliding bass lines.
The album is dominated by super-tight trio playing, augmented by guest alto saxophonist Andrew Van Tassel on three tracks.
Van Tassel provides some beautiful somber melody lines to the extended piece, “Waiting,” before letting the sax wail in the middle part of the tune, gently fading away at the end.
On the track “December 2008,” Van Tassel and Anderson weave melody lines around each other, creating a tune within a tune.
As to the title of the album, Anderson said, “Despite the ominous sounding CD title, I really am an optimist, and I do love my homeland. Anyone who has lived in a third-world country long enough among impoverished people will appreciate the many good fortunes that we enjoy in the nations that are generally more affluent, in spite of the present economic troubles we face due to greed at all levels, as well as the many other forms of selfishness and social ills that tend to weaken our society.
“The old saying goes, ‘Don’t talk politics or religion on the gig.’ Yet whether verbally articulated or not, the deeper and personal issues are most often what breathe life into my art — that which feeds the mind and the spirit, that which causes one to think, to feel and to reflect.”
As a composer, Anderson has the ability to write complex yet melodic pieces for a jazz trio or large orchestra. His works have been performed by the West Point Military Academy Band, the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra, Dallas Chamber Orchestra and many others.
“Nation Degeneration” is an excellent jazz disc, one that should appeal to lovers of traditional jazz, as well as those who like something a little more challenging.