John Stein: Hi Fly Review

By: Matthew Warnock

John Stein Hi Fly

John Stein Hi Fly

Boston jazz guitarist, and Berklee Associate Professor, John Stein is back with his third album as a leader since 2008.  With his previous two releases, Encounterpoint and Raisin’ The Roof, garnering him a wide array of attention from across the jazz guitar community, Stein brings together an all-star cast for his third album in as many years. Accompanied by bassist John Lockwood, drummer Zé Eduardo Nazario (known to many as the Brazilian Elvin Jones) and newcomer, Jake Sherman on acoustic piano and Hammond orgran, Stein has not only gathered a quartet of world-class individuals for this record, but a group that knows how to gel as an ensemble, which contributes highly to the overall success of the album.

One of things that always stands out on an Stein record, is his original compositions. Jazz fans will no doubt enjoy the fresh arrangements given to classic jazz standards such as “Speak Low,” “Laura” and “Love Letters,” but it is the original material that really provides an inside look into Stein’s artistic process and compositional output. Tunes like “Skippin’” and  “Threesome,” are two distinctly different works, containing different grooves, melodic content and harmonic movement, yet they are recognizable as a Stein composition right from the opening notes. Being able to write in different styles, yet maintain a personalized stamp on any composition, is the mark of an experiences, well-developed writing  style, something that Stein possess and uses as the foundation for each of the original tracks on the record.

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As an improviser, Stein prefers to focus on creating melodies and working from that melodic content in his solos. He shies away from longer lines, and more complex harmonic and melodic development in favor of drawing the listener in with short, easy to follow ideas that dig deep into the harmonic movement of the tune. There are moments when Stein likes to step outside and take things to unexpected territory, but he always sets these moments up with some nice inside playing, allowing the listener to follow him as he moves around the chords, and outside the chords on occasion, rather than losing them with adventurous, unexpected material right from the outset of a solo.

The trio also performs at the highest level throughout the record. Nazario is a joy to listen to. I was lucky enough to catch Stein and Nazario live at the Savassi Jazz Festival in Belo Horizonte last year, and they were just as strong together on stage as they are on this latest release. Brazilians love rhythm, and the country produces some of the best drummers in the world, and Nazario deserves to be included in the upper echelon of these percussionists.

As well, Lockwood is solid throughout as both a rhythm player and soloist. His work on “Lazy Afternoon,” for example, is first rate. The song crawls along at a slow pace, one that would challenge many bass players to hold down. Yet Lockwood sounds like he’s barely breaking a sweat as he not only keeps the tempo steady, but creates interesting melodies with his basslines and injects a nice amount of emotional content into each section of the piece.

Newcomer Sherman also gives a stand-out performance on the record. Both his piano and organ work are mature beyond his years, as is evidenced by his solo on the title track “Hi Fly.” Here, Sherman digs deep into the groove, coming up with interesting rhythmic motives that compliment his harmonic and melodic work in just the right way. By being a three-dimensional player, using rhythmic, melodic and harmonic ideas in his solos, Sherman not only keeps up with the experienced members of the ensemble, but also states his claim as a young keyboardist to keep your eyes and ears on in coming years.

As expected, Hi Fly is a strong release for Stein, an artist that seems to never run out of new and interesting material to record and release year in and year out. With such a strong follow up to his last two records, one can only wonder what the talented guitarist and writer has in store for his fans next year.