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NUVO Interview: Pianist Steve Allee 

Pianist Steve Allee and his family moved from Indianapolis to Brown County about eight years ago. “I love nature and I’d always wanted to live out in the woods,” Allee explained by phone from his country home. “I had heard and read about writers and composers that would go to the country and write music,” Allee said, and he figured the time had come to follow in their footsteps.

He’d already established himself in the Indianapolis jazz scene over the last 35 years, leading a big band, playing in trio and quartet settings, sitting in on just about every group without his name on it (including the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra). All this after a career that began at age 19 with the Buddy Rich Orchestra.

So Allee left urban life behind, looking for inspiration, fondly remembering family drives through the countryside when he was a kid. He found it in an unexpected place. “There’s a small pond in the back of our house,” Allee said. That pond is populated by the many varieties of dragonflies found in Southern Indiana. “I didn’t realize how many different kinds of colors there were of dragonflies. I would go out every day and just sit there.”

He tried to capture the “uplifting and positive feeling” he felt when he encountered this new branch of the natural world on the title track to his new CD Dragonfly. “I’m inspired by the transcendental quality of the country,” Allee reflects. He goes on to compare his sense of place to modernist classical composer Charles Ives, who translated the landscape of the East Coast into pieces like “Three Places in New England” and his second piano sonata, “Concord, Mass.”

Allee laughs after talking about Ives, suggesting that it’s a pretty weighty allusion for an album by a piano trio. But the album, a thoughtful and diverse collection of seven of Allee’s originals, two standards (“Somewhere” and “If I Were a Bell”) and one Coldplay cover (“X & Y”), stands up to the comparison.

On Dragonfly, pianist Steve Allee is working again with the same band — drummer Tim Horner and bassist Bill Moring — that yielded 2007’s Colors.

The opener “Bus to Belmopan,” inspired by a bus ride to Belize taken by Allee in the midst of a tour, is a bright and slightly Latin-influenced track with understated accompaniment by Rich Perry on saxophone. While “Belmopan” is a breezy listen, the trip that inspired it was a bit more treacherous. “It started out as a very calm bus ride, starting at dawn,” Allee relates. But as the dilapidated bus climbed higher into the mountains, it also took on more passengers, packing 100 people onto a bus designed for no more than 60. Allee swears that the bus “went around the corner on two wheels.” Allee’s tune, rarely discordant, doesn’t reflect his sense of panic, focusing instead on the adventure and exoticism of the trip.

Three songs populate the “Dedication Suite,” each dedicated to a musician that influenced Allee: “Conversation with Bill,” played in the style of Bill Evans; “Thaddeus,” arranged in tribute to big band arranger Thad Jones’ rich and minor-laden chords; and “If I Were a Bell,” an Oscar Peterson pastiche. Allee says he wrote the Bill Evans tribute after he dreamt that he had a conversation with Evans, during which they discussed, not unsurprisingly, jazz piano. The trio takes the standard “If I Were a Bell” at a surprisingly quick tempo, with bell-like intonation on the piano and an off-kilter swing making for an invigorating revision.

Dragonfly is the second release on Owl Studios this summer, joining the first recording by the Dixon/Rhyne Project, Reinvention, which is already available. Dragonfly is due to drop July 22, although copies will be available at the CD release party Friday at the Jazz Kitchen. Allee will be performing with Frank Smith on bass and Kenny Phelps on drums for the Friday show, with Rob Dixon joining on sax on all the relevant tunes. The trio will perform all the tunes from Dragonfly, as well as a few from Colors.

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