Monday, April 27, 7:30 pm
Underbelly, 113 E. Bay St.
For nearly a decade, the Riverside Fine Arts Series has presented some of the most interesting musicians Northeast Florida has hosted in that time. Most of those concerts have occurred in Riverside, at the historic Church of the Good Shepherd, one of the best places in Florida to catch a show. (The Turtle Island String Quartet’s performance some years back remains a personal favorite.)
That process has proceeded full-speed into 2014. Enter Becca Stevens, hailing from Winston-Salem, NC, by way of New York City. Classically-trained in guitar at North Carolina School of the Arts (c/o 2002), she earned a BFA in vocal jazz and composition at the New School for Jazz (c/o 2007) before going pro. Even out of school, Stevens copped credits quickly, in combos led by pianists Taylor Eigsti and fellow New School alumnus Brad Mehldau (who, incidentally, was born in Jacksonville).
By her count, she’s recorded about 25 songs so far. “I have been writing songs since I can remember,” Stevens writes via email from the road, where she’s currently on tour, “and I’ve recorded a lot of original music with artists and bands other than my own, as well as original material that was never officially released.”
Her solo debut, “Tea Bye Sea”, was released independently in 2008. “Weightless” (Sunnyside) followed three years later, bringing her into mainstream focus for the first time. Speaking to NPR that year, Kurt Elling cited her among his five favorite jazz vocalists. A new album is slated for later this year: “I just finished mixing the upcoming album. I’m in the process of trying to find a label for it. If that doesn’t pan out, I’ll release it on my own.”
“When we perform live, the music tends to be heavier, bigger, and higher energy than how it was recorded on ‘Weightless’,” she says. “My approach is always changing in little ways as I am as an artist. Also, we are playing mostly new material now, from our upcoming release. This new material tends more towards a heavier rock/pop sound, and is a little more danceable and less moody than the songs from ‘Weightless’.”
Stevens is probably best-known to casual fans as the vocalist for Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra, an 18-piece supergroup of New York musicians—who’ve worked for artists ranging from Clark Terry and Ray Charles to Jessica Simpson and Arcade Fire—assembled to perform his original big-band arrangements of Bjork songs. Their 2008 album “Enjoy” was, and remains, an instant classic.
It’s hard to accurately describe music that crosses over so many boundaries; even the artist has some difficulty categorizing the dozens of songs she’s written so far. “I’d say it floats somewhere between pop, Appalachian folk, jazz, rock, and world music,” she writes. “The arrangements are intricate and vocal/harmony driven. The compositions are intimate but accessible, through-composed, and from the heart!”
Stevens currently leads her own band, which she founded in 2005; the group includes Liam Robinson (accordion, piano, vocals), Chris Tordini (acoustic bass, vocals) and Jordan Perlson (drums & percussion). Tordini and Robinson have been in her band since day one, whereas Perlson’s “only” been there five years. It’s a band comprised of friends, who have come up in the business and evolved into their mature style together, which lends a real tightness to the live sets, even as the music itself can be downright laconic.
Stevens is contributing strongly to a rebooting of how jazz is perceived by audiences for whom the music is more often considered a fixed entity, in stasis and currently inaccessible, geographically and aesthetically. It’s no coincidence that Underbelly will also be at the epicenter of the “Jazz After Dark” activities at the jazz festival in May; Stevens’ own band and the Bjorkestra are both prime examples of the kind of acts that should be booked at the festival itself in the future. As for Stevens’ own future, all systems are go. “I’d like to stay on the track that i’m currently on!” she writes. “I’d like to also continue collaborating with likeminded artists outside the music I play with my bandmates. I see myself making music until I can’t make music anymore.”
Having started very early, Stevens (a 15-year veteran) is presently a leading light among the new generation of genre-smashing jazz/pop hybrid female vocalists, several of whom—including Sophie Milman and Esperanza Spalding—have also worked Jacksonville in partnership with RFAS. Although they have worked Miami before, this will be the Becca Stevens Band’s first appearance here in Jacksonville. It will also mark Underbelly’s first time hosting the RFAS. Both those firsts are well worth repeating, as often as possible.
April 25, 2014