All About Jazz

The music on Z Octet runs a wide gamut, from the humid southern hemisphere stylings of "The Elephant's Tango" to the vocally inflected "New Years" to the elegantly pastoral solo piano of "Red Bug Slough" (channeling the spirit of Aaron Copland crossed with George Winston). Just when you think you have gotten beyond any jazz, "Anomie" shows up, reed-rich and jaunty with plenty of sass and attitude. Even Alex Coke's subdued flute pipes up with Su Terry's dry clarinet when pitted against Alex Heitlinger's muted, talking trombone. This is Duke Ellington’s brilliance, Maria Schneider’s local color, and Miles Davis’ diamond hard seriousness all melded and tempered by a singular mind and talent into a cogent and familiar musical statement.

Monday Recommendation: Peggy Stern

Peggy SternZ Octet (Estrella Productions)

It has been 16 years since Peggy Stern last applied her piano, composing and arranging talents to a mid-sized ensemble. Z Octet was worth waiting for. The sonic textures, harmonic subtleties, rhythmic variety and instrumentation draw upon classical chamber music in several pieces, including “Anomie” and “Zinfandel.” In “The Elephant’s Tango” and “Jury Duty,” Latin cadences create pulsing undercurrents. Stern’s writing weaves piano, clarinet, cello, trombone, flute, bass and drums into rich and often surprising textures. Vocals by her and Suzi Stern (no relation) enrich three tracks. In the solo piano piece “Time @ Time/Hymn,” Stern experiments her way into the chords, but not the melody, of “Time After Time.” “Whenever Sunrise” also borders on free jazz. The CD ends with an unlisted bonus track that makes enchanting use of cello, trombone and flute. The whole album is a bonus.

Press Release

News & Info
   Press Release For Immediate Release   
"Z Octet,"
New CD by Pianist Peggy Stern,
To Be Released July 8
On Her Estrella Productions Imprint
Composed and Arranged by Stern,
& Recorded in Austin,
CD Features Su Terry, Clarinet;
Alex Coke, Flute; Alex Heitlinger, Trombone;
Ilia Delarosa, Cello;
Richard Mikel, Bass; Wayne Salzmann, Drums;
&, On Two Tracks, Suzi Stern, Vocals

June 13, 2016

Finding inspiration in the physical surroundings of her current hometown of Austin, Texas, and drawing upon what jazz critic Harvey Pekar called her "fertile imagination" as a pianist, composer, and arranger, Peggy Stern has recorded the deepest and most personal album of her distinguished career, Z Octet. Comprised of several of her most poignant compositions, the recording shapes them into a cohesive work of great beauty, color, and tender emotion. Stern's Estrella Productions will release the CD on July 8.
At once bold and subdued, shimmering and shadowy, Z Octet is neither jazz nor classical, bridging those genres in a way that recalls Maria Schneider's efforts with her larger ensemble. "I like that it doesn't really fit into any genre," says Stern, who has never let generic expectations color her approach to the music or the way she plays the piano.
On the new CD, recorded at Greenhaven Studio in Austin, pianist Stern is joined by an unusual blend of players, including clarinetist Su Terry, featured with Stern on The Art of the Duo(2010); flutist Alex Coke, a seasoned avant-gardist; trombonist Alex Heitlinger, a gifted and widely experienced young player and composer; and Ilia Delarosa, a cello virtuoso from the Dominican Republic. The CD also features bassist Richard Mikel and drummer Wayne Salzmann, as well as vocal harmonies on two tracks by the leader and Austin favorite Suzi Stern (no relation).
Ranging from "The Elephants' Tango," a gently swaggering tango named after the Elephant Room, an Austin club, to "Phille," a rich, choral-style piece written after the death of Stern's mother, Z Octet covers a wide range of emotions and styles. While Z Octet is a suite, with a trajectory and atmosphere all its own, each piece within it radiates its own particular qualities.
Peggy Stern
Native Philadelphian Peggy Stern began playing classical piano at an early age, acquiring her Bachelor's Degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York in 1968, and then her Master's in 1970 from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
Stern moved in the early 1970s to San Francisco, where she learned to improvise and expanded her musical horizons. One of her first jobs in town was with the popular Latin dance band SuperCombo, the hardcore Cuban rhythm section of which toughened her approach to salsa montunos, six nights a week for two years. She also played in the Latin-rock big bandAzteca, the R&B band Cat's Cradle (which she co-founded with Linda Tillery), and jazz trumpeter Eddie Henderson's group.
After moving to New York, she added to her Latin resume by playing in legendary percussionistMachito's legacy band and performed jazz in varied settings.
Heading to Seattle in the early '80s, Stern thrived in a music community that was more amenable to outsiders and non-conforming styles than New York. "I have consistently found that the West Coast is more open to new musical ideas," she says.
In Seattle, where she lived for eight years, Stern played with such local heroes as Julian PriesterGary Peacock, and Jay Clayton and was an assistant professor for six years at the Cornish College of the Arts. Her first album, City Hawk (1985), a collection of originals save for Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," featured her on piano and synthesizer.
In 1988, she recorded the solo album Aliyah, a collection of Jewish tunes (one that neatly paired up with her earlier release, Christmas Collection). Two years later, she was back in New York, where, when not teaching upstate at SUNY-Purchase, she immersed herself in the downtown scene. She played with a formidable number of first-rate artists, including Lee Konitz, with whom she recorded such albums as Lunasea (1992), much of which she composed.
Peggy SternShe co-led a quartet with a very different saxophonist, singular avant-gardist Thomas Chapin, a collaboration documented onThe Fuchsia (1997). "Free jazz is my favorite thing to play," says Stern, who was good friends with Chapin when his life was tragically cut short by leukemia in 1998. 

Her other '90s recordings include the trio effort, Pleiades, which teamed her with rising bassist Ben Allison and drummer Jeff Williams; The Jobim Collection, a duo album with Konitz; another trio work, Room Enough, consisting largely of jazz standards and featuring Harvie S and Jeff Williams; and her first large ensemble recording, Actual Size, a kind of precursor to Z Octet featuring such stalwarts as trumpeter Ron Horton and trombonist Art Baron. In 2006 her Estrella Trio released a self-titled CD.
Stern, who has also extensively performed, recorded, and taught in Europe, relocated to Austin in 2013 in order to be close to her married daughter Sarka and her two grandchildren. Moving to Texas, Stern quips, was "a little like moving to the moon," but Peggy has adapted by playing everything from modern jazz to salsa to western swing. She also added a popular jazz venue to the scene -- her living room aka Salon Peggy -- and a gorgeous new CD to her discography.

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JazzIz Magazine

“Luminous lyricism…the piano more caressed than played…with subtlety, nuance, warmth, effortless swing, beauty of line, and sophistication of harmony and dynamics.”

Jazziz Magazine

The Cleveland Scene

"In addition to a fertile imagination, precise technique and subtlety, Peggy Stern demonstrates consummate artistry...every note she plays makes sense."

Jazz Times

“Stern has her own voice — she extracts a lovely timbre from the piano…refusing to waste notes”

Philadelphia Daily News

“She has a Monk-like quirkiness in her playing; there is a sense of melancholia and wistfulness that opens windows to her soul.”

Sydney Morning Herald - Australia

“Stern is eclectic to the nth degree.”

The Artful Mind

by Ed Bride, The Artful Mind, April 2006

The key to success in the Jazz world can open the doors of life in general: have a direction, but know how to improvise. Growing up, our parents probably told us that direction is essential for any career; we later learned the importance of improvisation, also known as spontaneous, unscripted action (or in the musical world, performance. Indeed, a Jazz purist might define improvisation as "spontaneous composition").

As a composer of choral works, interpreter of Brazilian music for duo and other configurations, creator of energetic piano trio numbers, and more recently leader of a salsa and samba group of varying sizes, Peggy Stern maintains a Jazz orientation by always holding that one definition. "Jazz is improvised music, so within that umbrella, I consider what I do to be Jazz. When people think of Jazz, they often think of bebop, and while I do that for fun, that's not really what my focus is, what will be my legacy."

Solidly grounded in classical music, Stern's legacy is likely to include a commitment to melody, something that is missing in some performers who try to impress audiences with finger acrobatics, technique and scales, in lieu of melody and harmony. Her technique is as varied as one can describe, from delicate to powerful, beautiful to angry. But always with a memorable melody, and usually with a solid beat. Audiences at her recent appearances at Castle Street Café in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, have described her as a "monster pianist," which is a major compliment in the music world.

Stern's music has a particularly broad ethnic base. In addition to European and American classical music, it draws from Brazilian, African, Jewish, Irish, Cuban, and traditional jazz influences, all known for enchanting melodies and/or strong rhythms. She grew up in Philadelphia, moved to Rochester to study at the Eastman School of Music; to Boston for further study at the New England Conservatory, and then entered the world of the occasionally migrant working musician.

After a stint on Cape Cod, she moved to San Francisco, a location that probably was the first to have a major influence on her adoption of Jazz: she took up improvisation, and it suited her well. She moved back East to New York, to become immersed in the essence of personal performance and Jazz. She became a frequent visitor to Bradley's, where the likes of Jimmy Rowles, Charlie Mingus, Hank Jones, and Tommy Flanagan would routinely play and/or hang out.

In the 1980s, she moved to Seattle with her new daughter Sarka Mraz, and stayed for eight years, returning to New York in 1990. She lived in Irvington, West Chester, and then on the upper West Side of NYC, and part of that time was teaching at SUNY Purchase.

Among the places with the greatest musical influences, or inspirations, Stern says "they all served their purpose." San Francisco was encouraging of improvisation; New York was great for intense learning; Seattle encouraged new music, and it was a supportive, nurturing environment for what she was doing. She attracted a following there, something which many musicians never achieve.

"I have consistently found that the West Coast is much more open to new ideas, much more supportive of new music." The East Coast, she finds, is more parochial. The Jazz community on the East Coast might not be very welcoming to something that they're not quite sure how to characterize, she suggests, but hastens to add that the quality of musicianship on the East coast outweighs the downside of the discipline.

Why leave that accepting, nurturing environment? In a way, she was at the top of the Seattle creative music scene, "whatever that meant." In New York, it was easier to disappear and continue exploring and developing. "I could be really (BE) nobody." Now, she is "re-inspired" musically, and excited about making original piano trio music that leans heavily on salsa and samba.

It makes sense to back up a bit, and explore what got her into Salsa in the first place. She traces it back to San Francisco, where one of her first gigs after switching from classical piano was to fill an empty chair in the band called SuperCombo, in the mid-1970s. She did that for a year, six nights a week. The rhythm section was entirely Cuban, and "they were putting up with none of my nonsense." They were pure-enough Cuban that she couldn't even get away with playing something in McCoy Tyner's mainstream modal Jazz vein. "Don't do that," they'd tell her. So, "I learned the real essence of Salsa, I had to fit into that group, do things certain ways, or it just wouldn't work."

As a cog of the rhythm section, the piano player didn't have the freedom to wander, or dabble in other genres during solo time, because then the wheel wouldn't turn. "I could see the whole room dancing. I would look out there, and it was just so beautiful." The combination of music and visual appeal sparked an interest that is today's flame.

But as to the SuperCombo gig itself, she relates, Eddie Henderson came into the club, invited her into his band, "and that was that," she joined the jazz trumpeter's band.

Once she came to New York, she also worked in the legacy band of the late Cuban percussionist Machito. Four months pregnant, coming home from work around dawn didn't really fit a safe, healthy lifestyle. So, after Sarka arrived, it was off to Seattle.

Fast forward to today, where she calls upon all those past experiences, especially learning the Cuban rhythms, in the salsa and dance and funk music of her group, Estrella Salsa and Samba. Listeners to her group wonder where all the music comes from, suspecting her of hiding an additional pianist behind the curtain; upon close examination, it can be verified that she only has two hands, each equipped with only ten fingers. But all that training, the work with the Latin groups, and the solid classical education, obviously gave her a solid grounding in melody, harmony, and rhythm.

She has been concentrating on salsa and samba for a couple of years now, and it is no temporary orientation for the next album, "This is what I really want to do, where I live rhythmically. I like making heads bob up and down, it means a lot to me. Music should dance, at least my music should. It's just another form of swinging. Everything should swing; even classical music should swing."

Among her musical influences, Stern names Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Bill Evans. "I listened to Bill every day...I must have picked up a lot, there. And Horace Silver, his music dances. He is not the greatest technically, but I love his composing. He's great, and composing is so hard."

A musician makes a living in two or three principal ways, one feeding on the other: performing, recording, and for some, composing. Performances in concerts and clubs provide energy that nurtures creativity, and helps sell the recordings. Hard, lonesome work is also necessary for any recording of original music: creating the material that will be recorded and performed. Towards this end, there are at least three Stern projects in various stages of gestation.

She has an idea that draws on her classical training: a solo album of classical themes. An unusual approach for most Jazz artists, someone who has heard her a dozen or more times is convinced she can do it. A trio album of Salsa and Latin-flavored original music is first, however, and she will be in the studio on that project this month.

Perhaps most ambitious on the "maybe" list is a work for chamber orchestra that she will compose. The idea came after one of her small-group concerts, after which the French Horn player suggested that the material could be expanded to a full orchestral version, and the rest will be history. Not a symphony, but a few woodwinds, a chorus, strings, a couple of brass instruments and, of course the piano.

Peggy believes in making a contribution to the community; it bothers me that the Jazz community spends a little too much time navel-gazing; we can tend to be a little ego-based and not community-based.  A few years ago, Stern became interested in jazz chorus. Having been raised singing in choirs, she began writing for vocal groups, both standards and originals. One of her compositions, "Lunasea" is featured both in choral form on Konitz' album Brazilian Rhapsody, as well as being the title tune of her own 1992 quintet album with Lee Konitz. A couple of years later, "New Rain" and "Sunbath" (first recorded by Woody Shaw) were featured with chorus and sextet on her album Actual Size.  A writer suggested to Stern that the process of composing music is the most original form of art, starting from nothing and finishing with a work that can be appreciated, if not understood, by all. "I don't think of it that way, but it's an interesting theory. I just know it's hard, and it's frustrating." Where does that inspiration come from, then?

"Usually it comes to me when I'm not thinking specifically about it. All of the really great moments come when I'm in a semi-conscious state, at the piano. I may just be playing, with the idea that I would like a new tune to come out. I may be under a deadline, then I'm playing, and all of a sudden there's a germ of a motive a little bit, a piece; I can hear's the truth. That is a trip.

"But how do I make that into a composition," she continues. "Where does it go from here? And then you have all these veins of possibilities, going every which way. If you're intelligent, you can make anything work. But then you might come back to it a couple of hours later and recognize that while it works, it isn't good. Or, it doesn't work, after all."

The inspiration could also happen while shopping, or sleeping, even. But when that happens, "usually it's gone when I wake up. Some things just escape into the air, and maybe they'll appear in my next life...or next week."

Besides being frustrating, the process of writing is delicate, she asserts. "The piece I'm working on now is called 'Precious Little.' I'm fighting for every measure; each measure has a whole bunch of possibilities, and then when I land on it, how do I get to the next measure?" The very next day, she wrote "Sonnet," and "it just fell out of the sky, perfect, nothing needed to be done to it." That's "the best kind of moment" she knows.

Sometimes, she may know how a composition is supposed to finish, and she might work backwards. Unlike a symphony, there is no blueprint for the structure of a Jazz composition. But there is a process. Once she has that germ of the melody, the next step is to "getting it into some form where I can improvise with it."

Even her Jazz compositions display her classical underpinnings. One of her best, she feels, was the aforementioned "New Rain," from the CD Actual Size. The music was the result of her trying to figure out an interesting way to introduce "Here's that Rainy Day." Hence the title, which actually has nothing to do with the lyrics, an original poem of lost love.

Peggy Stern is the artistic director of the Wall Street Jazz Festival, currently in their 11th year, in Kingston's uptown business district. Featuring female-led bands, a rarity in the Jazz world, the free festival is sponsored by the not-for-profit Ritenuto Foundation, and is supported by underwriting grants.

All About Jazz

The music on Z Octet runs a wide gambit, from the humid southern hemisphere stylings of "The Elephant's Tango" to the vocally inflected "New Years" to the elegantly pastoral solo piano of "Red Bug Slough" (channeling the spirit of Aaron Copland crossed with George Winston). Just when you think you have gotten beyond any jazz, "Anomie" shows up, reed-rich and jaunty with plenty of sass and attitude. Even Alex Coke's subdued flute pipes up with Su Terry's dry clarinet when pitted against Alex Heitlinger's muted, talking trombone. This is Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974

" data-original-title="">Duke Ellington's brilliance, Maria Schneider

" data-original-title="">Maria Schneider's local color, andMiles Davis

Miles Davis
1926 - 1991

Miles Davis' diamond hard seriousness all melded and tempered by a singular mind and talent into a cogent and familiar musical statement.

Music to hear

Brigas Nunca Mais - Quartet

Pianist Peggy Stern

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