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.
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 band Azteca, 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 percussionist Machito’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 Priester, Gary 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.
She co-led a quartet with a very different saxophonist, singular avant-gardist Thomas Chapin, a collaboration documented on The 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.