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Steve Million with Sarah Marie Young

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    Posted: 02 Oct 2021 at 9:46am
Released August 20, 2021

STEVE MILLION has a strong affinity for poetry, and his newest album, JAZZ WORDS, is a sparkling showcase for the songwriting talents of this highly accomplished pianist and arranger. JAZZ WORDS features eight contemporary jazz tunes with a post–bop edge, all penned by Million. This is Million’s seventh CD as a leader. Although he has included many of his original compositions on previous albums, this is the first time that he has a produced a recording of all original music.
Million always surrounds himself with top-shelf musicians. In past releases, he has worked with such stellar names as Randy Brecker, Dick Oatts, and Chris Potter. He does no less on this recording. For JAZZ WORDS, the lyrics were particularly important to him, so he brought on board vocalist SARAH MARIE YOUNG, a semi-finalist in the 2010 Thelonious Monk Competition and the winner of the 2011 Montreux Voice Competition, judged by Quincy Jones. All About Jazz has said, “Young's voice is a delight: impressive range, great clarity, expressive and emotionally engaging.”
Million, who is well-known on the Chicago-area jazz scene, also enlisted for this project some of the top musicians from the area, including saxophonist JIM GAILLORETO, who has played with Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Patricia Barber, John McLean, and Fred Hersch, bass player JOHN SIMS, who has played with Ron McCurdy, Steve Cardenas, Michael Kanan, and Marianne Solivan, and JUAN PASTOR, a drummer originally from Peru who blends South American percussion rhythms with North American jazz harmonies.
Million grew up in Boonville, Missouri, a small city that did not offer a lot of cultural opportunities. But his interest in music was sparked when he was eight years old and his mother took him to hear Count Basie. The little boy sat right at the edge of the stage, staring intently at Basie who smiled at him throughout the concert. After the show, Basie talked with Million and introduced him to the band. Million was in awe and the seed was planted. Million began collecting blues records by people like Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, and the British blues acts, especially John Mayall and Eric Clapton. But, after hearing Dylan, what he really wanted to be was a songwriter.
His parents were not very musical, but they did have a spinet piano that his mother played on occasion, and he began learning the blues playing the music he heard on records. He also began playing blues harp and drums. He played drums and harmonica with a blues band for a while, but he got seriously interested in the piano when he was in high school. He started listening to jazz records and was enthralled by a concert with John McLaughlin.

Million went on to North Texas State University where he studied jazz and, because of his love for literature, especially poetry, he also studied English. He was absorbed by Thelonious Monk, who became a major influence on his piano playing. “When I heard Monk, it just turned my head around,” says Million.

He completed his education at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where he developed his chops by playing classical music and studying composition. He continued writing his own music throughout his years at school. After leaving school, he played rock, blues, and jazz with different bands that performed around Kansas City, and he began writing longer, more complicated tunes. Local jazz musicians dug his original music, and he started writing horn charts.
In 1988, Million became a semifinalist in the internationally renowned Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, and, in that same year, he and his new wife moved to Chicago where there were more opportunities for him. Monk’s music continued to play an important role in his career, and in he formed a two-keyboard band called Monk’s Dream. He and multi-instrumentalist Joe "Guido" Welsh later created the humor-filled band Thelonious Moog. Today, Million performs in a piano duo with esteemed pianist Jeremy Kahn, called Double Monk. He is also a professor at the respected Merit School of Music, where he teaches classes in jazz piano, jazz ensembles, and improvisation.
Million recorded his first album, Million to One for Palmetto Records in 1995. He followed it up with Thanks a Million (1997) and Truth Is (1999), also for Palmetto. He has released a trio album, Poetic Necessities on the BluJazz label in 2002 and a solo album, Remembering the Way Home for Origin Records in 2008.
Million’s music on JAZZ WORDS has a post-bop feel liberally sprinkled with references to Monk. Million opens the album with “Heavens to Monkitroid,” a burning, bluesy tune about a woman deciding if she should take a chance with a guy she sees in a bar. For those too young to remember, the title of the tune is a play on “heavens to Murgatroyd,” a cry of surprise by the cartoon character Snagglepuss, a regular on the Yogi Bear Show in the 1960s. Million played “Mis’ry Waltz” as an instrumental on an earlier CD but slowed it down and added lyrics for this project. With its ¾ time, the tune has almost a country music feel. Million wrote “Missing Page” for his daughter named Page who moved away. The song, which is written in 12/8, features lovely lyrics like, “Missing Page / Torn from our hearts, / Those missing parts / Are the ones we’ll need / If there’s any hope to succeed / In this symphony of life.”
Million wrote “Hymnal” after 9/11. His sorrow permeates the song, yet even through the sorrow, there is hope with lyrics like, “These are not to be sorrowful seeds we sow / For there's joy in discovering that we always know / These will not be sorrowful seeds we sow / There's so much more to know before we go.” Million wrote “Nika’s Changes” for his other daughter. The song, written in 5/4, is about his hopes for his daughter. Million is a cancer survivor. He discovered he was stricken almost at the same time his wife became pregnant. The lyrics are a meditation on his feelings at the time, “Few years back / You were born / After the cold wind blew / Through my life / And left me with an / Emptiness / That was filled / With your love / Now the breeze that blows / Across my heart / Is filled with the / Warmth of love.” “Loss” is the story of the divorce from his first wife. Million ends the album with “The Way Home,” a song about finding our inner truth, which is always inside us if we just look.
Steve Million’s melodic and inventive piano playing, matched with the luminous vocals by Sarah Marie Young, create a rich tapestry of styles and moods. JAZZ WORDS is an eloquent, poetic, and highly engaging project.
JAZZ WORDS was released on August 20, 2021 and is available everywhere.
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