Blue mood, interrupted

The next — and last — show of the Stephanie Morgan Quartet really ought to be a poignant thing. But you wouldn’t know it from the band’s excitement.

Their farewell gig is scheduled for Tressa’s Downtown Jazz & Blues, the downtown venue that SMQ front woman Morgan credits for nurturing the group into something no one involved ever expected: a mini-phenomenon that spread well beyond its jazz-standards roots.

The final Tressa’s performance will also mark the release of Reel, the quartet’s long-awaited debut, which fans have been demanding for years. And in one fell swoop, the album also becomes the group’s swan song.

At the close of this ironically timed CD-release party for the album they’re all so proud of, SMQ will be no more. Vocalist Stephanie Morgan and pianist Chuck Lichtenberger will be splitting from bassist Mike Alexander and drummer Bill Smith to focus on Stephanie’s Id, their other musical project.

Over a late breakfast last week, Morgan talked to me about her reluctant decision to end SMQ.

“Mike and Bill have been my family for … I don’t know how many years,” she muses, thoughtfully poking at her eggs and fried potatoes. “I think all of this is sad, because transitions are always hard. But as far as all of us are concerned, we’re good.

“As of August, I will have only one band,” she continues. “Stephanie’s Id, my indie-pop band. SMQ, as it is now, will no longer be.”

But why dissolve a group that’s been doing so well?

“Chuck and I need to focus on our original material,” Morgan says. “Our music has changed, and has become scarier and darker. But we like inviting people into that world, and we wouldn’t want to give our audience any less than the kind of music we are really meant to be playing.”

SMQ is — was — a popular band on the local jazz scene, able to infuse a chaotic passion into songs that, in lesser hands, might dribble out as barely memorable.

Maybe Morgan and Lichtenberger’s status as a real-life couple has had something to do with it. In any event, there have been moments in their shows when some dusty Bill Withers or Duke Ellington song tapped some sweet wellspring of creativity in them, even though they were playing only standards.

And what about SMQ’s faithful? Are they expected to join the ranks of Stephanie’s Id fans, or to simply move on to another jazz group?

“I think any time there is a change in an artist’s direction, you risk that some folks are going to be alienated,” Morgan allows. “We’ve been lucky to have the base of people that have supported both bands through all of our changes. We started out playing straight-up jazz as Frim-Fram Sauce, and we morphed into something that isn’t jazz or swing.

“This is a bigger change, and I’m going to trust that our fans will still support us.”

Before we parted, Morgan gave me a copy of the group’s appropriately titled new CD, recorded using a vintage reel-to-reel. Reel is, in many ways, an ideal SMQ album — a live document totally faithful to the band’s strengths. Alexander’s bass and Smith’s drums wrench open the music, giving Lichtenberger’s keys room to stab deep into the melody, even as Morgan’s voice coaxes new life from tunes that rightfully should have given up their mortal coil decades ago.

When a SMQ song finally dies, you can hear its frantic spasms — final, desperate sparks of life that ignite the air around it.

Of course, there’s another side to this story — that of Alexander and Smith.

“Is it unprecedented, as far as you know, to have the CD release be the band’s last show?” the bass player recently asked. “I was kind of hoping it was.”

Interestingly, neither Alexander nor Smith seem all that broken up about SMQ splitting up. Still, no juicy tales of band strife are forthcoming — quite the opposite, in fact.

“This band never even practices,” Smith says with a laugh. “We were some of the first people to play with each other when each of us came to town, and we’ve been through a lot together. It’s the deepest musical relationship I’ve ever been in. I will miss that.”

Echoes Alexander: “It’s hard, because … we’ve all known each other for a long time. But no band lasts forever; that passage is a part of any group.”

He ends, improbably enough, with a surfing metaphor. (Well, SMQ always was partial to odd twists.)

“I feel like I’ve been riding this great wave here in town, working with all these different people, and now it’s coming into shore,” Alexander offers.

“Before I paddle back out, I want to take a look around.”

The Stephanie Morgan Quartet will hold a CD-release party and play their farewell show at Tressa’s Downtown Jazz & Blues (28 Broadway) starting at 10 p.m. on Friday, July 30. For more information, call 254-7072.


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