It’s refreshing to hear young musicians playing traditional jazz. It’s even more refreshing to hear them playing it exceptionally well. While jazz sub-genres range from the screaming, avant-garde sensibilities of John Zorn to the lukewarm Muzak of Kenny G, Steven Feifke and company keep it simple. Each band member is all of 23 or 24 years old, yet each is as savvy as a much more seasoned musician. Anybody with an interest in jazz should watch Feifke and tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown cover “Summertime” (1935) and “For All We Know” (1934) on YouTube.
So it’s fitting they should play at the Regattabar, a venue in Cambridge often frequented by high profile jazz musicians. Essentially a cocktail lounge, the Regattabar is the perfect place to showcase more hard-lined jazz. Imagine: over whispered drink orders, clinking ice and murmuring patrons, a ballad begins with soft, sweeping piano chords building gradually until it’s accompanied by shimmering drums and a brass line, starting low before mounting to a high, strutting resolution.
This is the case for the second song of the night -an original composition by Feifke. After a short intro, tenor sax player Lefkowitz-Brown launches into an incredible solo. Kinetic, earnest and ever expressive, he has an ability with his instrument few people have. Already frighteningly talented for his young age, his performance is hypnotic the whole night through, earning every whistle and clap he receives.
It’s not just that the band fits the venue well. All throughout the night the musicians are goading each other on, beaming at one another and laughing and whooping at particularly good phrasings. They’re clearly having a good time, and this charisma – impetuous and genuine – is part of what makes watching this band so entertaining – a quality that is absolutely necessary for a jazz concert where sounding overly-rehearsed is a deathtrap.
The band avoids that pitfall many ways. One is drummer Jimmy MacBride. Favoring collapsing rhythms and tight fills, he’s on-point the whole night through -and the constant stream of improvisation keeps each song both grounded where it needs to be and interesting during more idle sections. Another thing the band has going for it is Feifke himself, whose piano playing has a slight bluesy edge to it.
Opening with a limber take on Thelonius Monk’s “Evidence” (1948), the band’s other standards included Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” (1960) – one of the best songs of the night – and a surprisingly bouncy rendition of “Autumn in New York” (1934). The standards are good, but the band is more confident and enthusiastic while playing Feifke’s compositions. During the fifth song, Feifke’s “Long Gone,” alto saxophone player Andrew Gould nails the transition into his solo so perfectly he carries the entire momentum of the song along with him.
The intimacy of the concert is fantastic as well. By the end of the night a smattering of laughter greets Feifke as he explains the encore number, “It’s a song I wrote for my parents’ anniversary – I don’t remember which anniversary.” The ending song is appropriate: Feifke’s parents are actually in the audience that night. Elegant and hushed, it’s safe to say that any parents would be lucky to have their child compose such a song for them.
The concert is wonderful, every song performed passionately and tastefully. This is a band steeped in the tradition. Where jazz is typically about pushing the limits of an instrument, these musicians favor lush, poignant fundamentals performed to maximum effect. Most importantly, Feifke and company are thoroughly entertaining. Feifke is evidence that there is plenty of room for both innovation and astounding brilliance at the heart of jazz – and that more traditional veins are far from exhausted.