True voices

By JON GARELICK  |  January 12, 2009

It's practically a job requirement of the Becca Stevens Band (Colin Killalea, Liam Robinson, Chris Tordini, and Tommy Crane on the album) to "double" on multiple instruments as well as sing, and the CD closer, "I Forgive You," is a marvel of criss-crossing vocal parts and rising narrative drama. This weekend, Stevens will be working with just Robinson and Tordini, whose main instrument is bass.

"Since the record, I realized quickly that it's impossible to get the whole band on a gig," says Stevens, "and I don't want to turn down a lot of gigs just because I can't get everyone." It's January 2, and she's sitting in her car on the street outside her sixth-floor walk-up SoHo apartment talking to me on her cell, cleaning up after a New Year's Eve move to a new place in Harlem. "I put Chris through hell, because I had him learn all these harmony parts that he wasn't singing on the record, so he's playing these syncopated bass lines and singing complex back-up harmonies at the same time. Liam does the banjo stuff and a lot of extended technique on accordion. We get a lot of the sound from the record, but in different forms."

Despite varied, jazz-influenced ensemble moves, she says there isn't a lot of technical calculation in her songwriting. "Classical guitar made a huge difference in my technique, but for some reason it didn't change my approach to writing. My mind still works the same way when I'm writing as it did when I was 12. When I pick up the instrument, I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm not thinking: this is the V chord, this is the I chord."

She cites her father, William, a respected composer himself, as a key influence, as well as her brother Bill, in whose rock band she sang as a teenager. But in the world at large, Joni Mitchell is still the female singer-songwriter touchstone. "She never stuck to one thing — she evolved through folk, through jazz, she went through every genre you can think of, and she's still timeless."

Stevens is part of a group of young singer-songwriters — many of whom she knows or has worked with, like Monika Heidemann, Julie Hardy, Rachel Price from the Boston band Lake Street Dive, and, the most famous of the crop, Kate McGarry — who are blending jazz and singer-songwriter techniques. "I'm really drawn to people who have no limits and cover a lot of ground."

Local audiences know pianist Laszlo Gardony's playing well — he's been here since 1983, when he first came to Berklee from Hungary, and he's been performing and recording regularly since. He's known for his great touch, his tunefulness, and his facility in different styles. But on Dig Deep, his fifth album for the Sunnyside label, you might hear something a little different: the sound is somehow bigger, Gardony's rich keyboard voicings giving each chord new depth and breadth. The tunes, meanwhile, are as hooky as great pop, whether it's the rolling descending figures in the set opener, "In Transit," the New Orleans–tinged 5/4 of "Out on Top," or the rock-backbeat two-syllable refrain of "Heavy."

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