By John Hardaker
At a recent semi-impromptu opening set at Foundry, Emma Stephenson included one of her own songs among the well-picked standards, such as ‘Days of Wine and Roses’. The song was ‘Song for My Piano’ and, as if a window had been opened, letting in sudden sunshine, it stopped the room.
The song is the second track on ‘Where the Rest of the World Begins’, the new album from Stephenson’s Hieronymus Trio. The six-track album is a collaboration with singer Gian Slater, the Trio’s second album and the debut co-release for David Theak’s new label, 54 Records.
The Trio’s NYC-recorded first album was mostly instrumental brilliant, sparkling piano trio conversations between Stephenson, drummer Oli Nelson and bassist Nick Henderson but did close with the vocal tune ‘Crows Might Fly’. Gian Slater’s interpretation of that song opens ‘Where the Rest of the World Begins’,the band developing out of the songs short suite-like movements into a simmering scat section and shimmering piano solo.
Slater’s voice is a perfect choice for the Trio and Stephenson’s songs. Bell-clear, it is a fluid thing, like smoke or drifting water, avoiding any grating blues edges or forced earthiness. It is this instrumental quality a hallmark of all valid jazz singing that fits so neatly with the modern angles and curves of Stephenson’s compositions.
‘Song for My Piano’ is here equally room-stopping; an intimate love-letter to Stephenson’s instrument, the lyric nakedly expressing the surprises the piano can still, like a lover, give the composer.
‘If the Sun Made a Choice’ is a lovely song of hope, with stabs of Gospel funk creeping onto Stephenson’s piano solo. ‘Love is Patient’ takes that one line from Corinthians and unpacks it into a remarkable composition; the melody rises and falls, undulating over a rubato ground from the Trio; it is on a performance such as this where Nelson and Henderson shine: without strict rhythm, they need to be able to breathe as the music breathes, and they do, effortlessly.
‘Going in Circles’ adds some satiny Rhodes flavours to its polyrhythmic maze of melody and ground, where the two encircle each other as the lyric speaks of two people doing the same.
The title tune closes the album. A mini-epic of unpredictability, smart writing and startling originality, the songs lyric ruminates on identity, universal oneness and where you and I fit in to it all. Nelson’s colourful mallet work behind the melody morphs into a succinct solo, which in turn morphs into the melody restated; this time over a jagged broken chord riff. The entire effect is mesmerising, the eleven minutes passing like seconds.
At the above Foundry gig, Emma Stephenson told me she was moving to New York to take on the jazz world there. I made a lame joke about it being perhaps less dangerous if she climbed into the tiger enclosure at Taronga Park. But based on her work here and elsewhere, as well as her triple-threat of piano, composition and vocal, I have a strong feeling she will have those NYC tigers eating out of her hand.
Album available at https://www.54records.com.au/where-the-rest-of-the-world-begins