Michael Jefry Stevens

Lillard/Stevens Group

The Lillard/Stevens Group is the most recent collaboration between pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and drummer Art Lillard. Lillard and Stevens first began performing music together as students at Miami/Dade Community College back in 1972.  They later moved to Boston, MA where they co-led several ensembles including the “Psalms” Quartet and “Z Real Band”.  The Lillard/Stevens ensembles  performed throughout New England between 1976 and 1980.  Both Stevens and Lillard re-located to New York City in the early 1980’s and continued their musical relationship for the next decade.

Beginning in the early 1990’s their paths diverged.  Michael Jefry Stevens co-founded several international touring jazz ensembles including the Fonda/Stevens Group (Joe Fonda, Herb Robertson, Harvey Sorgen, Mark Whitecage), Conference Call Quartet (Joe Fonda, Gebhard Ullmann, George Schuller), the Generations Quartet (Joe Fonda, Oliver Lake, Emil Gross), In Transit Quartet (Dieter Ulrich, Daniel Studer, Juerg Solothurnmann, Stevens-Siegel-Ferguson Trio (Jeff Siegel, Tim Ferguson) and the Eastern Boundary Quartet (Joe Fonda, Balazs Bagyi, Mihaly Borbely).  Michael Jefry Stevens toured Europe with all of these groups consistently between the early 1990s up until 2021 (Covid).  His discography containing over 100 CD releases includes many CD’s from the aforementioned musical groups.

Art Lillard’s touring background includes his experience as house drummer for various musical productions by the Amas Repertory Theater under the leadership of Rosetta Lenoire and several decades with the Theater for the New City. In 1992 and ’94 Art toured Europe with the Broadway show “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, including performances at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy and the Pori Festival in Finland, and in 1995, ’96, ’98, 2008, and 2010 he toured Europe and South America with an original production of “Phantom of the Opera.”

Lillard and Stevens re-connected at the beginning of the “Covid” epidemic.  In the past two years, they have released the following CDs of their original music on the “Artists Recording Collective” Label.  The cd’s include “Forgotten Wish”, “Original Music for Sextet” and “Living Green World Blues”.  These studio recordings were made in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.  The release of these three cd’s provided the impetus to start this new “Lillard/Stevens Group” project.  This new sextet recorded nine original compositions and arrangements by both Lillard and Stevens in 2022.  The CD is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2024 in support of the group’s upcoming Fall, 2024 USA tour.

The current members of the Lillard/Stevens Group include Don Aliquo on saxophones, Jamey Simmons on trumpet, Rick Simerly on trombone, Jonathan Wires on bass, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano and Art Lillard on drums.

An active performer, educator and recording artist, saxophonist Don Aliquo has released several recordings, appeared on many others and continues His playing has been described as a “fluid and articulate player with a flow of always surprising ideas complete with a dexterous technique and Jazz Studies at Middle Tennessee State University he is a Conn-Selmer and Vandoren artist.

Arranger, composer, trumpeter, and educator Jamey Simmons grew up in Wisconsin and knew early on that music was his unique gift. He earned his Bachelor of Music at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, and studied under Robert Baca.  He earned his Master of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Media at the Eastman School of Music where he studied under jazz composer and arranger Fred Sturm. Simmons is currently Director of Jazz Studies at Middle Tennessee State University where he teaches courses in jazz and directs Jazz Ensemble I.

As a trumpet player, Simmons toured internationally with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. He is active on the Nashville professional music scene, and has made appearances with artists as diversified as the Temptations, Dave Weckl, Buddy DeFranco, Lee Konitz, Duffy Jackson, Vince Gill, Debby Boone, and the Nashville Jazz Orchestra. He has written arrangements and compositions that have been performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the Buffalo Symphony Pops, the Nashville Jazz Orchestra, Brussels Jazz Orchestra and numerous university and high school ensembles. His first original jazz sextet CD,, features New York saxophonist Scott Robinson.Rick Simerly  has been described by David Baker as “…one of the most exciting and consistently creative trombonists in jazz today.”  Jamey Aebersold depicts him as “…an astounding player with fantastic range and a keen sense of developing a solo.  

His playing takes you on musical journeys and each one is different and exciting.” The Online Trombone Journal states “Rick Simerly is in the upper ranks of contemporary trombonists”, while the Jazz Review declares “…when jazz fans think about great trombone players, only a few names come to mind, J.J. Johnson, Steve Turre, or maybe Bill Watrous.  Soon jazz fans will be praising the slide horn of Rick Simerly.”  The International Trombone Association Journal wrote “Rick leaves no doubt about his mastery…Rick is “scary”!” Rick has toured with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra under the direction of David Baker and has played in the bands of Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Nelson Riddle, Les Elgart, Bob Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Morrow, and the last band of Charlie Spivak.  He has performed with jazz artists Billy Taylor, James Moody, Slide Hampton, Rufus Reid, Jon Faddis, Bobby Shew, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Milt Hinton, Eric Alexander, Dave McKenna, Butch Miles, Adam Nussbaum, Pat LaBarbera, Steve Wilson, Bobby Watson and many others.  Some of the entertainers with whom he has

Jonathan A. Wires is jazz performer, composer, and educator. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Music from the University of Memphis and a Master’s Degree in Jazz Studies from Middle Tennessee State University. He has studied bass with Tim Goodwin, John Chiego, Michael Formanek, and Denis Irwin. Wires has been recorded on numerous records ranging from rock, jazz, folk, to classically influenced music. He has performed with a variety of artists including Frank Lowe, Billy Bang, Michael Marcus, Alvin Fielder, Jeff Coffin, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Davis, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Charlie Wood, Kelley Hurt, Calvin Newborn, Larry Panella, Joel Weiskopf, Bruce Dudley, Kate Paradise, Joe Davidian, Chester Thompson, Thomas Giampietro, Chris Walters, and Evan Cobb. Among his other contributions are performances on the film soundtrack for “Black Snake Moan”.  In addition, he has served on staff at the Vermont Jazz Institute and the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s summer jazz camp.  Jonathan teaches Small Ensemble classes at the NJW.

CD Releases...

Click or tap to read the liner notes or album reviews.

Waking Up to an Ailing World

by Tyran Grillo

If Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book was ever a regular in your bedtime reading rotation, you likely have not forgotten the Chippendale Mupp. This uniquely Seussian creature is distinguished by the curious habit of biting his tail before going to sleep. Because said tail is unusually long, it takes hours for the pain signal to reach his brain, by which time he has gotten the rest he needs before waking up with a yelp. By force of analogy, one might say that the sonic experience on which you are about to embark bit its tail in 1982 and is only now popping its eyes open in 2021.

Part of an ongoing series of archival treasures featuring drummer (and, in this case, first-time producer) Art Lillard and his longtime collaborator, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, Living Green World Blues finds the duo flanked by Kenny Filiano (acoustic bass), Steve Adams (flute and alto sax), Dave Tidball (tenor and soprano saxes), and Dave Johnson (trumpet). Together, the bandleaders paint a broad canvas with original compositions that taste as fresh as the day they were first baked.

If forced to define this album in one word, I might go with “quilted.” In that very sense, it stitches together squares that, while differently patterned, form a larger picture that is greater than the sum of its parts. If Stevens’s “Frederique” is any indication, we can be sure of finding ourselves welcomed with open arms no matter where we tread. Composed the year before this recording and dedicated to a lady friend of the same enchanting name, the tune is distinguished by its Latin vibe and slippery changes. Flute and tenor sax prove themselves to be leading voices of the ensemble in this opener, while trumpet and piano shine over prime rhythming from Lillard and Filiano. These dynamics set the stage for an experience that every listener is open to interpreting individually. Whether in the glistening “Just Another Swing Tune,” which dates from the 70s, the straight-ahead stylings of “Jazz Tune” (hat tip to Adams’s well-muscled altoism on this one), or the through-composed mysteries of “The Final Solution” between them, one can expect to encounter a diversely populated palette. From those colors, Stevens paints one half of a double door that Lillard is more than happy to complement.

Lillard’s “Jasegem” tells the story of a life that could have been in the state of Mississippi before the universe allured him to Boston—where this autobiographical nugget was unearthed—and beyond. Its smoother brushwork speaks of dark times yet happy endings, indicative of the album’s dualism as a whole. Lillard also provides a centerpiece in the form of the title track, a substantial suite that evokes the dilemma of our predatory nature with the planet we call home. At nearly 14 minutes, it provides plenty of room for introspection and a homecoming groove to boot. The patience with which its horns and flute build their case makes for a convincing message—one we desperately need in a time when truth seems to be put on trial every day. If “Ta-Dee, Ta-Dum” is any indication, however, we have a right to shake the insanity out of our manes once in a while and, through that act, find that we have been sharing the same air all along. Lillard was inspired to write this, the album’s closer, after attending a concert by the late, great McCoy Tyner. Warmed by the fire he witnessed that night, Lillard marshalled the assistance of Bob Pilkington, a Berklee College of Music professor, to commit it to the page before it curled into smoke. It remains one of the band’s favorite tunes of Lillard, and now its gifts can be unwrapped, along with the rest, for better days to come.

Forgetting as Remembering, Remembering as Forgetting

There is a poignant sequence in the 2001 film Amélie during which the titular protagonist finds an old tin box filled with an anonymous child’s keepsakes hidden in her bathroom wall. Cradling this time capsule in her hands, she embarks on a quest of equal anonymity to reunite it with its owner, who stares in wonder at the decades-old contents within. We find something of that joy in the music archived on Forgotten Wish. Thankfully, we know the identities of our musical archaeologists.

This collaboration between drummer Art Lillard and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, alongside saxophonist Billy Drewes and bassist Keiichi Ishibashi, features compositions by both bandleaders and was recorded in 1984, only now opening its eyes in a starkly different world from the one in which it closed them. Given the circumstances of this latter-day release, it’s tempting to hear the sounds herein as a yearning for the time in which they were created. That said, one may also find plenty of hope for the future.

Lillard recalls how he first met Stevens while studying music at Miami Dade Junior College. At the time, he was studying classical bass but found that he wasn’t suited for it. One day, while skipping orchestra, he heard an enticing jazz riff wafting across the hall. “When I walked in, I noticed there wasn’t a single chart in sight. And yet, there was such a flow to what they were doing. It really smacked me upside the head.” It was then that he brushed up on his old love—the drums—and sat in with Stevens and his band. They became fast friends and, for the next few years, lived together in Miami and then Boston, touring with reggae singer Alston Bair, all the while putting together the jigsaw puzzle of their sound behind the scenes.

Forgotten Wish is Volume II of a retrospective series that opened with the Original Music for Septet, the latter featuring three horns, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. The present follow-up for quartet represents a more intimate sea change in their rapport. Notes Stevens of working with Lillard, “It’s always nice to have another voice. I’ve done a lot of collaborations over the years, but my first was with Art. I watched him grow as a composer, and I think we probably influenced each other in some subconscious way. His writing has become more traditional while mine was never quite so traditional to begin with.”

Lillard, who takes care to arrange the track order and overall flow, is the first to confirm their difference of approach: “It sometimes takes me months to craft a tune, but Michael can bang one out in five minutes. I come from a place that’s more ‘structured’ because that’s what I need to ground myself.” Listening to their styles merge here, one can hear how they fill in each other’s gaps.

It was while Lillard was studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston that he joined forces with bassist Ishibashi, while Drewes was someone he’d often heard live and hoped to involve in a project. It was only a matter of time before the session that became Forgotten Wish was born.

Stevens’s originals provide the album’s frame. Starting with Dedication and ending with Red’s Blues, the setlist reads like the diary headings of a poet who feels no regret over the 37-year gap bridged by their reemergence. In either tune, one encounters a spirit of unity over division through which Lillard and Ishibashi weave sunlight and shadow in equal measure. Like the album as a whole, they are lush and declamatory yet never force their hand. Drewes’s tenor underscores the credence of every melodic unpacking while Stevens evokes a river’s worth of energy. From the haunting puzzle of Invocation to the whimsy of Waltz Whitman, his writing inspires strong developments of space and time in the band. Their sharing of ideas is so equally distributed that if the music were a poker game, they’d all be laying down the hands of equal value. Their collective royal flush comes in the form of Today, This Moment, an urban sprawl in sound that, despite its 18-minute length and epic sensibilities, gives space to some delicate conversations in the rhythm section. Thus, the listener is invited to detach from present concerns.

Lillard’s writing populates the foreground with sonic companions whose methods of travel are utterly compatible with their surroundings. The Latin persuasions of Idle Wisdom evoke a place where the feet slide along a landscape of beautiful memories into a quiet piano trio that sounds like respite within respite. Between the airy title track and Sin City Shame, which evokes a slot machine through a fog of drunkenness in hopes of a lucid win to snap one out of a difficult life, Lillard elicits a slightly more latticed effect that reminds us of the separation of time. All of which is collapsed in It’s Soon, where neorealism hovers behind every gentle phrase.

Regarding the album’s title, Lillard offers a personal, though by no means prescriptive, interpretation: “Growing up as I did with constant health issues, I was something of a caged bird, so freedom was always important to me. Playing without rules opened up possibilities for me that, as I got older, drew me further inside myself. And so, at the age of 30, I gave up on playing free in search of structure. I always had this wish of doing something more with this music, but I don’t regret a single moment. I developed a lot as a player because of it.”

Stevens looks back on the time this humble session represents with a likeminded sense of having traveled in the deepest sense. “My only message,” he says, “is to create as much beauty as I can. I’m not trying to change the world. Life has humbled me since then. I’m a better version of who I used to be, just struggling to understand life.”

Knowing that struggle as we do, we can take solace in these tunes as proof that forces of division only serve to remind us of what binds.

–Tyran Grillo
Spring 2021

On March 13, 2021 I will turn 70 years of age.  A definite milestone in this Jazz musician’s life and career.  I first heard jazz (Miles, Mose and Trane) at the age of 17, and by the time I turned 20, I had dropped out of Clark University and enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College where I began my first studies of jazz harmony and improvisation.  I met Art Lillard at Miami-Dade, and we instantly became best friends, colleagues and band mates.  We left Miami together in 1975 to enroll in Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY.  In 1977 we were living together in Boston and studying at Berklee College of Music.  By this time Art and I were both composing original music and rehearsing our music in small groups that we co-led.  I left Boston for New York City in 1980, and Art moved to Brooklyn in 1982.

My first professional recording studio experiences involved musical projects with Art in the Boston area.  This CD release is one of the first studio recordings featuring our original music.  It was recorded in NYC around 1982 and features original compositions by Art and myself.

Michael Jefry Stevens
Black Mountain, NC

At Miami-Dade Junior College in 1972, the music emanating from a rehearsal room stopped me in my tracks. I was struck by the way it just flowed from one place to another and never repeated. A peek through the window of the room’s door revealed musicians playing acoustic piano, acoustic bass, and drum set, but with nary a music stand or chart in sight. I was determined to meet the pianist, so the next time I saw him on campus, I expressed my interest in doing a jam session. This was my introduction to both free music and Michael Jefry Stevens. 

This freer type of jazz seemed both fun and scary, as the musicians had nothing to go on but the fleeting moment. My exploration of free jazz continued over the next two decades, through listening to recordings, attending performances, and playing drum set in various groups, often with Michael as pianist. In our earliest association, we jammed weekly for the better part of a year in Michael’s tiny Coconut Grove apartment. My first jazz gig was with Michael, guitarist David Weisbrot (also on this recording), and a bass player, at the wedding of a neighbor from that apartment building. It remains to this day the most fun wedding gig I’ve played.  

By the early eighties, Michael, David, and I had each ended up in New York City, where we resumed our musical relationship. This recording presents some of the fruits of those efforts. My compositions on this session keep a foot in more abstract music but contain some set forms to work from. Direct inspiration for these tunes came from three of my favorite musicians: McCoy Tyner (Ta-Dee, Ta-Dum), Eric Dolphy (Sin City Shame), and Thelonious Monk (Little Burplee Blues).

Art Lillard

 

 

 

Mountain Song

Style: jazz waltz

Grade: 3

I wrote this song while I was living in Brooklyn, NY and spending quite a bit of time in Woodstock, NY.  This is the closest thing to a “country music” song I have ever written.  This composition was recorded by myself and bassist Eliot Wadopian on our "Mountain Song" duo CD.  This piece is extremely playable at most levels!!!

Mountain Song

$2.49

Alisiah

Style: Swing

Grade: 1

Alisiah is one of my earliest compositions. The tonality revolves around C major, F major and Eminor. It is a very simple medium tempo swing tune. Nothing fancy.  This piece was recorded on my "Duets" CD with vibraphonist Jason DeCristofaro.

Alisiah

$2.49

For My Brother

Style: Ballad

Grade: 2

The harmonies move quite slowly in this ballad.  The most challenging aspect of the piece are the 2/4 bars.  This ballad was recorded on Jon Hemmersam's "Remembering" CD release which also featured Dave Liebman and Rakalam Bob Moses.

For My Brother

$2.49

Lei’s Song

Style: Waltz

Grade: 2

This is one of my favorite compositions.  Written in 3/4 time, but with phrases grouped in three’s, four’s and other odd groupings this is a very unique piece.  Also, it is made up entirely of minor 7 chords.  The Fonda/Stevens Group recorded this tune on our CD "The Healing".

Lei’s Song

$2.49

The Beauty That We Are

Style: Ballad

Grade: 1

This ballad is quite easy to play.  The changes move very slowly giving the student plenty of time to navigate the harmonic landscape.

The Beauty That We Are

$2.49

The Moffett Family

Style: Blues

Grade: 2

This piece was composed in the early 1980's and dedicated to Charnett Moffett and his family band. I played with the band for one year. The tune is a simple form containing only dominant chords. The feel is very bluesy.

The Moffett Family

$2.49

Red’s Blues

Style: Blues, swing

Grade: 2

This is a very simple “swing” composition with a bluesy feel but not in a Blues form. The changes are very simple. The head is a question-and-answer with the melody and the rhythm section.  A good piece to introduce the blues scale to students. Released on my "Red's Blues" CD.

Red’s Blues

$2.49

Song for Rio

Style: Latin

Grade: 3

I wrote this bossa nova after visiting Rio in 1999.  The form is quite long and the bridge is very chromatic.  The piece is highly melodic and quite fun to play.  The "Stevens, Siegel & Ferguson Trio" recorded this tune on our "Six" CD release.

Song for Rio

$2.49

Memorial

Style: Latin

Grade: 4

This piece features a Latin feel written out in the piano part.  The changes are pretty standard and move slowly enough for the student to navigate quite easily. The bridge of the tune is a fun release from all the harmonic movement in the beginning section of the composition.  The "Stevens, Siegel & Ferguson Trio" recorded this composition on our "Panorama" CD which featured Valery Ponomarev on trumpet.

Memorial

$2.49

The Innocence of Spring

Style: Swing

Grade: 4

This medium swing tune consists of an extended melody and long form.  The harmonies are very chromatic and include some hybrid chordal structures as well.  The piece is challenging but worth the effort.  I recorded this on my "The Innocence of Spring" CD with saxophonist Don Aliquo.

The Innocence of Spring

$2.49

Kulturshock

Style: Swing

Grade: 5

This is a very adventurous composition. The harmonies are very difficult and the rhythms are quite unusual. A great challenge for the advanced player.  I wrote this piece shortly after moving from Brooklyn, NY to Memphis, TN.  That was quite a culture shock!!!

Kulturshock

$2.49

Four Wheeler

Style: Swing

Grade: 2

This composition is an open swing feel featuring a chromatic chord sequence and several polychords.  The changes move quickly making the piece difficult for the soloist to navigate. The melody is not difficult but overall the piece is challenging.  This is dedicated to the great trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.

Four Wheeler

$2.49

The Beauty That We Are

Style: ballad
Grade: 2

This ballad is quite easy to play.  The changes move very slowly giving the student plenty of time to navigate the harmonic landscape.

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