Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
Even as an expatriate engineer in Saudi Arabia, French-born saxophonist Stéphane Spira found opportunities to play. As a student, he’d excelled in math, a skill that gained him entrée to one of the best polytechnic schools in Paris, and it seemed likely that his career would take a more conventional turn. But while in engineering school, he began to teach himself to play saxophone, and before long he was sitting in at jam sessions, learning from more experienced players and developing his sound. (Chet Baker’s pianist, Michel Graillier, was a mentor.) When he returned to Paris from the Middle East in the 1990s, “I decided to quit everything for music,” he said.
That decision has paid off.
Spira released his debut album as a leader, First Page, featuring renowned French flugelhornist Stéphane Belmondo, in 2006 and his second, Spirabassi, with pianist Giovanni Mirabassi in 2009, both on the independent French label Bee Jazz.
To step out professionally alongside such accomplished jazz musicians “was pretty incredible for me, coming from an engineering background,” Spira recalled.
Spira has no trouble holding his own with the big guns, and his skills as a player—garnered in clubs, rather than in a conservatory—are carefully honed. As a composer, Spira brings to his writing a cultured appreciation of harmonic and melodic constructs, with a penchant for challenging chord progressions and elegant motifs. “As a sax player, I feel more influenced by Shirley Horn than by John Coltrane,” he explained.
By the time Spira recorded his third album, Round About Jobim (Jazzmax), an exploration of the overlap between European romanticism and Brazilian jazz, he’d relocated to New York City—another geographic shift in pursuit of his artistic goals. As he had during his school days in Paris, Spira began playing jam sessions around town and readily was accepted into the local jazz scene.
“It was really a dream,” Spira said. “New York is a fantasy for so many jazz players in the world.”
But the move to New York prompted more introspection than gig-hopping for the newly transplanted musician, who was dealing with the recent death of his father and the feeling that he was psychologically “in between” Paris and New York. Spira’s fourth album, In Between (Jazzmax, 2014), reflects this soul-searching—and with it, he emerged as a sophisticated composer and player who can hold his own among the jazz glitterati of his adopted city.
Today, nine years into his New York life, Spira is more settled. He’s married to classical vocalist Jessica Goldring and the couple has a young son. Additionally, the late-bloomer has found a core group of New York musicians with whom he can grow musically. These relationships provide inspiration and context for Spira’s latest album, New Playground (Jazzmax), which features the leader on soprano saxophone alongside Joshua Richman (piano, Fender Rhodes), Steve Wood (bass) and Jimmy Macbride (drums). It’s a tight program of eight originals (seven by Spira) that range from the teasingly rhythmic (“Peter’s Run”) to the tender (“Gold Ring Variations” and “Nocturne,” composed for his wife and son, respectively) to the inspirational and exultant title track.
Cinematic in mood and autobiographical in theme, New Playground marks that exciting moment when a gifted artist finds his definitive voice. “I’m really revealing myself with this album,” Spira said. “I’m not trying to prove anything. It’s just who I am.” DB
Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
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