Even as an ex-pat engineer in Saudi Arabia, French-born saxophonist Stéphane Spira found opportunities to play. Spira had come to performing later in life than most musicians: As a student he’d excelled in math, a skill that gained him entrée to one of the best polytechnic schools in Paris, and it seemed likely that his career would take a more conventional turn. But in engineering school he began to teach himself to play the saxophone, and before long he was sitting in at jam sessions, learning from more experienced players, and developing his sound. (Chet Baker’s pianist, Michel Graillier, was a mentor.) When he returned to Paris from the Middle East in the 1990s, “I decided to quit everything for music,” he said. That decision has paid off.

Spira released his debut album as a leader, First Page, with renowned French horn player Stéphane Belmondo in 2006 and his second, Spirabassi, with pianist Giovanni Mirabassi in 2009, both on the independent French label Bee Jazz. To step out professionally alongside such accomplished jazz musicians “was pretty incredible for me, coming from an engineering background,” Spira recalls.

Spira has no trouble holding his own with the big guns, however. His skills as a player—garnered in clubs rather than in a conservatoire—are carefully honed. (Spira is not alone in his musical auto-didacticism. Vijay Iyer, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie all taught themselves to play their instruments, either in whole or in part.) Beyond his playing, Spira brings to his composing a cultured appreciation of harmonic and melodic constructs, with a penchant for challenging chord progressions and elegant motifs. “As a sax player, I feel more influenced by Shirley Horn than by John Coltrane,” he explains.

By the time Spira recorded his third album, Round About Jobim (Jazzmax), an exploration of the overlap between European romanticism and Brazilian jazz, he’d relocated to New York City—another geographic shift in pursuit of his artistic goals. As he had during his school days in Paris, Spira began playing jam sessions around town and was readily accepted into the local jazz scene. “It was really a dream,” Spira remembers. “New York is a fantasy for so many jazz players in the world.”

But the move to New York prompted more introspection than gig-hopping for the newly transplanted musician. His father had recently passed, and “I was in between in my mind and in between [Paris and New York] physically,” Spira said. “I was still trying to figure so many things out.” Not the least of his concerns was where to take his music. His fourth album, In Between (HHHH, Jazzmax), in 2014, captures all of this soul-searching—and with it, Spira emerges as a sophisticated composer and player who can hold his own among the jazz glitterati of his adopted city. 

Today, nine years into his New York life, Spira is more settled both personally and professionally, he says. He’s now married, with a young son, and has found a core group of New York musicians with whom he can grow musically. These relationships provide both inspiration and context for his latest release, New Playground (Jazzmax), a tight package of eight originals (seven by Spira) that range from the teasingly rhythmic (“Peter’s Run,” for a cousin who ran the New York City marathon) to the tender (“Gold Ring Variations” and “Nocturne (For My Son)” for his wife and son, respectively) to the inspirational and exultant (the title cut, “New Playground,” a celebration of Spira’s creative life in the States). Cinematic in mood and autobiographical in theme, New Playground marks that exciting moment when a gifted artist finds his definitive voice. “I’m really revealing myself with this album,” Spira offers. “I’m not trying to prove anything. It’s just who I am.”

(Reprinted from the October 2018 issue of Downbeat)