Thursday, April 9, 2015

Piano master Steve Allee offers a compact solo overview at UIndy

Pianist Steve Allee will be a star presence throughout Jazz Week.
It would be hard to expect the local jazz institution known as Steve Allee to top the excitement he generated with the help of his top-notch big band last weekend to celebrate the 21st birthday of the Jazz Kitchen.

Still, I was eager to check out this widely respected musician's self-portrait at the piano without accompaniment. In an opening professional concert of the University of Indianapolis' Jazz Week, Allee offered about an hour's worth of solo piano Wednesday night to a small crowd in UIndy's Lilly Performance Hall, DeHaan Fine Arts Center.

At least several of us could have used a bit more. Gracious in responding to the hearty applause, Allee bowed and declined the opportunity for an encore. Nonetheless, there was treasure within that golden hour, starting with "Make Someone Happy" and ending with "Let's Fall in Love." The finale had a touch of grandiosity, with big chords and Peterson-style shimmering tremolos.

When Allee moves onto such a high plane of pianistic display, it does not come across as bombast. He is for the most part a subtle interpreter of both standards and originals, as this set of eight-plus tunes showed. When he's in the mood, he can mount an effective climax upon lyrical material, as he did in Dori Caymmi's "Amazon River."

Art by Paul Klee spurred an Allee composition.
Integrated into the personal style he's developed, Allee has folded in classic bop, as well as down-home, bluesy phrases rooted in the left hand. He is primarily a melodist, however, whose way with a tune has had the word "lilt" perfectly applied to it (by Ken Franckling, in liner notes to Allee's "Dragonfly" CD (Owl Studios)). That lilt was entirely suitable for Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance."

If Allee disassembles a tune while improvising, as he did in "'Round Midnight," he doesn't stray far from it before bringing it all back home. Or, he may choose to "sing" out the tune with just a little paraphrasing, as he did with the ballad "Never Never Land" (from Disney's "Peter Pan").

He is a graceful, thoughtful player, saluting another of the same inclination in his own "Conversation with Bill," a tribute to Bill Evans. His performance of it Wednesday featured lots of long phrases, logically connected, but still somehow surprising. If I have a complaint of something predictable, it applies only to how he ended almost every tune with delicate, decorative phrases, usually with hands far apart on the keyboard, the right one sounding crystalline high up.

Insight into Allee the composer drawing deep on musicality that isn't always dependent on a jazz feeling was provided by his "Hoffmannesque Fairy Tale." Inspired by a Paul Klee painting, this moody, impressionistic piece matched the dreamy, elfin nature of the visual art that prompted its creation. At a distant edge of Allee's artistry, perhaps, it still connected with everything else about his playing, arranging, and composing that has made him so durable a figure on the Indianapolis scene.