Stillman likens the band's interactive voicings to a string quartet or chamber ensemble — background and foreground often shifting. And he names as ideals of ensemble give-and-take the bands of Paul Motian (with whom he's begun to work), the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, and Bob Brookmeyer's duos with Jim Hall.
His first heavy indoctrination in jazz practice came in one of Dave Liebman's summer workshops — marathon day-long sessions "where he talked about everything from the physical aspects of playing the instrument" to "anything you could think of that had to do with saxophone playing and improvisation and composition." He credits Liebman with opening him to "a world of new harmonic choices." There were discourses on how to get beyond standard chord progressions, how to work in multiple simultaneous tonal centers, or with bass lines moving independently of the chord progressions. Liebman also introduced Stillman to "non-traditional" jazz devices from the canon of 20th-century classical music and guided him in developing a personal sound palette — not just a tone on the instrument, but a repertoire of the devices and techniques that best suited him. Eventually, Liebman hired Stillman to work in his bands.
Meanwhile, Stillman has forged a relationship with legendary alto-saxophonist Lee Konitz, first with a formal lesson and after that with occasional jam sessions in Konitz's apartment. With Konitz, there is more of a nuts-and-bolts emphasis on harmony — playing pieces in different keys, raising them, say, a third or a half-step. "It's actually pretty hard to do," says Stillman, "and Lee does it effortlessly."
The final link in his education was the classical composer Ludmila Ulehla, with whom Stillman studied at the New School. From her he learned a kind of "stream-of-consciousness" method for treating composition like improvisation: "get the pencil to the paper and just write and don't think about bar lines." From a rough draft, the composer figures out what will be in time or out of time, what kind of meter.
Perhaps all these things account for group improvisations on Like a Magic Kiss that flow as easily as Stillman's saxophone lines, and for the tantalizing harmonic ambiguity that teases and defers resolution. "I like the freedom in music, but I also like to have the freedom within the form. Like you're reconstructing a house from the inside — you're pushing the walls around and making the bathroom bigger and the kitchen smaller, but you're still dealing with the space inside the house."
Patricia Barber hadn't played Boston in so long, it hardly mattered that after walking out to the piano for the first set February 11 at the Regattabar with a box of Kleenex in her hand, she announced, "I've got one of those spring colds." She added, "If you want a refund, talk directly to me, because I'm rich and famous."
So, yes, the band stretched out a bit. That meant two extended features for drummer Eric Montzka and plenty of solos all around. Which wasn't a bad thing, especially given Barber's terrific piano playing. This was true whether she was soloing over her vamping arrangement of Jobim's "Triste," holding back on the beat, rushing ahead, phrasing conversationally, or comping in her beautiful, spare way behind bassist Michael Arnopol on that tune (which she sang in Portuguese). This wasn't the typical rhythmic chording accompaniment but rather a running commentary, quiet, short melodic asides or figures that overlapped in dialogue with Arnopol.