NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. – During the varied quarantines and lockdowns of the past two years, drummer and composer Johnny Steele found himself – like so many others – caught with an unexpected excess of time on his hands. Rather than squander what could be a rare opportunity for learning, growth, and self-improvement, Steele seized the societal sabbatical when his girlfriend introduced him to the game of chess. Quickly becoming enraptured with this timeless test of logic, strategy, and dexterous thinking, Steele found both a great joy and an interesting familiarity in the thinking patterns employed during the course of the game. “After noticing the similarities between the mental processes involved in jazz and chess, I was curious if there were musicians that I looked up to who were chess-obsessed like me,” explains Steele. “Turns out, there are a lot!” With a lineup of original compositions inspired by and paying homage to the styles of various musicians and chess aficionados whom Steele admires, The Game provides a distinct vantage to the inner machinations of minds wherein tactics and creativity expressively overlap.
While the album’s title of The Game may at first seem a natural choice for an artistic comparison between jazz and chess, Steele posits that the title goes beyond the mere surface of the matter. While some may think The Game refers to the nature of chess itself as a recreational activity, Steele named the title after the intellectual engagement in which players of chess and jazz find themselves. “The Game,” says Steele, “is in reference to the mental game that you find yourself in when engaged in improvisatory scenarios – in music or in chess.” This link between the two is found, according to Steele, not merely in planning or long-term thinking, but in reacting, application of knowledge, and lightning-fast instincts allowing one to maneuver any situation to create and control a moment of artistic beauty. It is this skillset that Steele began to see in other similarly devoted musicians, and it is these idols of his who see the pattern between jazz and chess that spurred him on to create The Game. “This album is about those people,” Steele says.
Musically, The Game is marked by a distinctive compositional style that simultaneously leaves the composer’s fingerprints on the auditory canvas while allowing for the varied personalities of the improvisers to shine through. Steele’s compositions use evocatively varied layers of ostinatos to construct the sonic foundation, shifting and changing personas and feels to denote the musical and individual personalities of the specific musicians who inspired each track. Upon this checkered groundwork, Steele’s band improvises and experiments in constant dialogue with each other, never straying from the vision of the artist whose legacy inspired the piece.
An apt example of Steele’s ability to evoke the essence of the musician after whom a piece is named is found on the track “Dylan’s Dream.” Using a ballad feel, this piece follows a linear narrative based upon a dream that Bob Dylan had about chess. With this story as the musical screenplay, Steele and his band emotively paint the varied twists and turns to programmatically follow the plot the singer’s sleeping mind created.
Featured alongside Steele on this album are saxophonist Chris Bittner, pianist Esteban Castro, and bassist Cole Davis. Like many great composers, Steele wrote his music with the strengths and traits of these specific musicians in mind. They in turn responded with a natural ease and scintillating brilliance in this framework that Steele created which equally showcased their personalities and left ample space for them to speak for themselves. Steele remarked that working with this band was “very simple and straightforward;” a testament to their skilled cohesion.
With The Game, Steele constructs a statement that stands as both a creative testament and marked thought experiment. By creatively drawing the philosophical lines between two standing art forms and the distinctive mental processes of each, Steele establishes himself as a bold and emotive titan emerging so far above the everyday racket.
The Game releases on Next Level on August 26th, 2022.