When Steve Allee was a young boy, his family would go visit an uncle with an extensive record collection. At some point during the gathering, his uncle would invariably start playing all kinds of music−classical, Dixieland, even Hawaiian.
One day, his uncle played "It Ain’t Necessarily So" performed by Miles Davis and arranged by Gil Evans. When it was over, Allee asked, "Would you play that song one more time?" After it was done playing a second time, he still asked, "Could we hear it one more time?"
"It hit me so much," remembered Allee, who is celebrating the release of his fifth CD, Colors. "That was the beginning of my love of jazz."
If there was any doubt, the Indianapolis native was hooked even more after attending an all-star jazz concert as a boy, sneaking into the second row between the first and second acts. When the curtain came up, it was the Duke Ellington Orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald. "That changed my life as well," he said. "We were a couple of little kids sitting up there, and Ella was looking down and winking at us."
That little kid grew up to become a world-class pianist and composer. Allee’s big band CD, Downtown Blues, was nominated for a Grammy. His latest release is his first trio album. Bassist Bill Moring (Mulgrew Miller and Chris Potter) and drummer Tim Horner (Maria Schneider Orchestra) join him on the record.
"I love the role of the trio, how the emphasis shifts so well between the instruments," Allee said. "The rhythmic and melodic patterns can shift so well from the bass and the piano and the drums."
The musicians didn’t go into it with the specific intent of making a CD. Instead, they wanted to get together and just play. They hit it off so well that they started recording their music. Recorded at Allee’s country home in Indiana, Colors is made up almost entirely of Allee compositions. The songs were influenced by his world travels. The title track was inspired by the rhythms of Brazil, where he went to visit some musicians and played in some jam sessions.
A trip to the Bahamas is captured in another song. Allee and his wife were walking on the beach when they were caught in a tropical storm. Allee started hearing a melody in his head, which turned into "Lucaya." "It’s amazing for a musician," he said. "Sometimes you can see turquoise water and start hearing music."
Closer to home is "Peepers." When Allee moved to the country several years ago, he anticipated that it would always be peaceful. But, in the spring, tiny frogs known as "spring peepers" come out and start singing. "It sounds like an orchestra," said Allee, with a laugh. "For the first day or two or three, it’s wonderful. After two weeks, we’ve got all of our windows closed." The number is his impression of when the frogs first start their songs and answer each other.
In addition to Allee’s original compositions, the trio plays two standards, "Yesterdays" and "Come Rain or Come Shine."
At night after dinner, the men would sit around and play music, using an accordion, bass, and viola. There was lots of joking and laughing during their time together, according to Allee.
All the musicians have experience playing with big bands, but the trio format is one that holds special meaning for Allee.
At 19, he toured with the Buddy Rich Orchestra, resigning when he got his draft notice in 1970. "I was No. 1 in the draft lottery, so I had to tell Buddy that I had to leave his band," Allee remembered. The next day, Rich came out and said he was against the Vietnam War and against the draft during an interview.
While Allee was in the service, he saw the Bill Evans Trio five nights in a row in a tiny club in Raleigh, N.C. He spoke to Evans after the gig. "I told him that I don’t belong here. By that time, I had a little son. I was trying to raise him," he said. "I didn’t have much to complain about because I wasn’t overseas, but it was rough. Bill Evans told him he had a recurring nightmare that through red tape that he was reinducted back into the Army. He had been out of the Army for 20 years. I thought if he’s still having a nightmare once a month, I’m not crazy."
Allee, who is helping to carry on Indianapolis’ rich jazz tradition that includes Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, and Slide Hampton, plans to further develop the music of his own trio. A tour is coming up with the trio, and more recordings may be in the works.
For more information, visit www.steveallee.com.