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The Sweet Sounds of Stepping Out

by Sarah Ristaino on April 23, 2015

Upon listening to a current jazz album in a recent interview, African American jazz bassist Christian McBride surprisingly stated, “well what do you know: a jazz record that sounds like jazz.”[1] What exactly does jazz sound like to McBride? He claims that “in the jazz world right now, it’s not too popular to play swing rhythms;” yet, “everything is cyclical,” and though not always popular, swing rhythm has been continuously present in jazz world, along with imagination.[2]

This past winter, almost two years after the release of his album Stepping Out (2012), British Jazz vocalist and pianist Anthony Strong made his first visit to the U.S. to be interviewed on NPR Music. Despite his developing popularity with European audiences over the past five years, he has only recently been introduced to U.S. audiences. He has been performing throughout Europe at festivals and shows, and topped music charts in Germany. He was originally trained as classical clarinetist, and he later attended music school to become a jazz musician. He learned to improvise, studied jazz musicians in the American tradition “intensely,” [3] and performed as a session musician with legendary blues artist BB King. [4]

Even tough critics like Christian McBride have to admit that Stepping Out sounds like jazz. Almost every song on this albums swings, and all of the instruments take their turn improvising. Strong covers many of the key genres within the history of jazz, and the instrumentation is often comprised of a traditional rhythm section and horns. The first song opens with keys and a scat solo, flowing into an original funky, big band number. The song unexpectedly switches time signatures, creating a rhythmic feel where you cannot help but move your body with the bass. Title track, “Stepping Out with My Baby,” swings with a baseline reminiscent of jazz standard “Fever.” In “Luck Be A Lady” grooves in a way familiar to the bass and rhythms of Horace Silver’s Latin jazz hit “Nicas Dream.” His rendition of jazz ballad “When I Fall in Love” features a sultry string arrangement that might be heard on Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook collection. “Change My Ways” features complex bebop melodic lines and busy, fast solos that Charlie Parker might play.

Stepping Out has musical content that appeals to both pop and jazz musicians alike. Many of the songs swing and have syncopated rhythms, but his vocalizing is sweet like Pat Boone. His originals utilize catchy melodies that are relatable and unthreatening for listeners who may be unfamiliar with complex jazz harmonies. His voice is clean and pretty, reminiscent of Harry Connick Jr. or a 90s singer in a boy band, and he regularly ventures into gospel territory, using vocal melisma that are found in today’s American popular music. His improvisational talent does not lies more in his piano playing than in his scatting-as is clearly evidence. On Stepping Out Strong reveals an impressive familiarity with the American jazz tradition. This album lacks the innovative imagination that is often found in the untraditional rhythms, structures, and instrumentation utilized by other European groups today such as Swedish EST and Icelandic ADHD. Stepping Out cleverly utilizes familiar styles and techniques within the American jazz tradition in a way most anyone can grove to. These sounds do not break any ground, but they will make you move.

Too Darn Hot

Cheek to Cheek

[1] “Anthony Strong on ‘Song Travels.’” NPR Music, Song Travels. 12 December 2014. http://www.npr.org/2014/12/12/370319879/anthony-strong-on-song-travels

[2] ‘Everything is Cyclical:’ Christian McBride Looks at 2015 in Jazz.” NPR Music, Jazz Night in America. 14 January 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/01/14/377224137/everything-is-cyclical-christian-mcbride-looks-at-2015-in-jazz

[3] Anthony Strong on ‘Song Travels’ 12 December 2014.

[4] Anthony Strong on ‘Song Travels’ 12 December 2014.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Adam Freshcorn April 27, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Good article! It’s interesting to focus on a modern European musician with a distinctly American sound. Maybe some of his popularity in Europe can be attributed to his style of jazz not sounding like the rest of European jazz. His American sound could be very unique to European ears. Maybe he will open up doors for more Europeans to look into his influences and listen to more American jazz.

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