Jazz holds up to every kind of methodology. “Helleborus,” the scintillating and often beautiful new album by the pianist Jesse Stacken, involves more than one, with two distinct approaches in the intention and the execution. On its face, the album is a collection of nine original tunes, ranging from the interior to the expansive, gracefully illuminated by a smart acoustic quartet. Only upon a closer look does a procedural back story emerge: These pieces came about during a yearlong “weekly composition project” initiated by Mr. Stacken in May 2012. Working according to a strict schedule, he wrote a new piece every week, posting a home recording — along with the score and, often, a dash of contextual insight — on his website, jessestacken.com. Some of the earliest of those compositions — like “Give,” an ethereal ballad built around intervallic thirds, and “Hidden Solitude,” inspired by Olivier Messiaen’s diminished scale — found their way onto this album. Others came from later in the game, when Mr. Stacken had stopped thinking about études. “Cork Soles” is a postbop number with a sly, prowling bounce; the title track, one of the last in the series, proceeds almost as an elegy.
It’s hard to say whether these nine tunes, out of a possible 52, represent the best of Mr. Stacken’s output. What’s clear is the quality of his cohesion with the saxophonist Tony Malaby, the bassist Sean Conly and the drummer Tom Rainey. At every turn on “Helleborus,” the ensemble plays with gusto, coherence and license, heeding the framework without ever sounding hemmed in. -NATE CHINEN, New York Times
The only way that creative musicians in the Downtown network can stay busy, sane and inspired is by being involved in a variety of projects. Whenever I talk at length with almost any Downtown musician, I am impressed with the number of different projects that they are involved in. After three trio discs (on FSNT) and five duo discs (on Steeplechase), pianist Jesse Stacken, has organized a new quartet, with musicians that he [hadn't] used on any previous projects. What is interesting is that, although the quartet sounds well seasoned, neither of the older cats (Malaby & Rainey) sound like themselves. Each piece provides a different challenge or structure to deal with. Mr. Malaby sounds sublime on soprano for "Hidden Solitude" (a cerebral ballad of sorts), the other sax he plays on rare occasion. I really dig the unison lines that Stacken and Malaby play together on "Upper Deck", quirky, difficult and no doubt fun as well. As a longtime fan of drum wizard Tom Rainey, it is great to hear him navigate these songs in his own distinctive way. Rainey has a way of playing in between the cracks of the pulse, speeding up a bit or slowing down, yet always nailing the specifics. I can't quite put my finger on it but I felt that this disc was somehow magical in its own way. Perhaps, this is what the title refers to: hellerorus? Hmmmm. Quite special somehow.
- Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery.
Frankly this is a great album. On this highly anticipated new collection Tony Malaby and young New York pianist Jesse Stacken barrage us with challenging free jazz.
The rhythm section is comprised of bassist Sean Conly, who is also a regular member of the Gregory Tardi group, and virtuoso drummer Tom Rainey whose album "Obbligato" was just released. Conley and Raineyi provide an iron-clad foundation for Stacken and Malaby's adventurous musical exploration.
I first became aware of Stacken after hearing his 2007 debut recording "That That" on the Fresh Sound New Talent label. I found the music on this album to be less than satisfying and could not recommend it on my blog. But this new album, Helleborus is superb.
Malaby's performance is integral to this music. His playing veers between sanity and madness.
Helleborus contains a great variety of feelings and flavors from beautiful ballads to jerking driving rhythms. Track 8, "Sad Clown", showcases Rainey's exquisite use of cymbals. The combined talent of this quartet has created a masterpiece of an album.
The Minnesota born Stacken moved to New York in 2002. He has released numerous albums including "That That" (2007), "Magnolia" (2010), and "Bagatelles for Trio" (2012). America's largest jazz website "All About Jazz" says Stacken is "a person of exceptional talent who has been active on the ny music scene since 2002, is one of the remarkable young jazz pianists."
-Miki Matsuoka, Jazz Ni Kogarete Ki Mo Sozoro (Translated from Japanese)
Cornetist Kirk Knuffke and pianist Jesse Stacken have a habit of tackling composers one at a time. The long-standing duo’s early performances featured the music of Thelonious Monk exclusively, before they broadened their palette to include Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. For their fourth release as a duo they have taken the unusual but, it turns out, inspired decision to juxtapose two apparently unrelated composers, Bill Evans and Carla Bley. Out of such random collisions do fresh sounds come: Knuffke and Stacken are probably more associated with the freer end of the fast-evolving Brooklyn scene, but the strong melodies, the sharp contrasts, and the almost indecently intimate horn-meets-chords setting makes for a musical conversation that hovers between form and abstraction, accessible but adventurous, profound but likeable. - Cormac Larkin, Irish Times
It's difficult to imagine two jazz composers more unalike than Bill Evans and Carla Bley – one soft and delicate, the other all hard outlines and sharp angles. But these two musicians manage to get inside half a dozen pieces by each with equal ingenuity. With just cornet (Knuffke) and piano (Stacken), this is by no means easy listening, and best appreciated in shortish bursts, but they're superb players and wonderfully clever improvisers. They produce some really bravura stuff on the more spiky Bley material. Interestingly, it took a Danish label to sign and record them in New York. Dave Gelly, The Guardian.
Fourth in a succession of successful sessions for Steeplechase by cornetist Kirk Knuffke and pianist Jesse Stacken, Five’s title actually derives from the Bill Evans composition the closes the program. Past projects for the label by the pair have made a point of pulling from the work of iconic composer/players including Monk, Ellington and Mingus among others. Evans serves as one of the inspirations this time around and his brand of impressionism is ideally suited to both the instrumentation and the open-ended, conversational approach favored by the musicians.
A clue to the other half of the selected songbook comes with the classic Paul Bley moustache Stacken exhibits coyly on the cover. Six of the album’s eleven tunes are from that pianist’s ex-wife Carla’s pen. Stacken notes the potential for incongruity in interpreting two composers in his accompanying notes, juxtaposing Bley’s penchant for angularity and quietly-deployed dissonance against Evans’ preference for rounded edges and tempered phrasing. Similarities are also readily apparent, particularly in the strong strains of lyricism that inform the writing styles of both alongside deeply personalized affinities for the blues.
Stacken relates the appeal of each of the tunes and the pair’s shared appreciation for each of the pieces comes across in the thoughtful and economical renderings. Most register in the four to six-minute range leaving just the right amount of time and space for melodic investigations and pithy solo improvisations. The liberties taken with the themes are often subtle and the disc features some of the tandem’s most openly alluring playing. Even the percussive barrages that propel Bley’s “Batterie” and “King Korn” carry an enduring comportment of composure and elegance. Knuffke’s fleet and often acrobatic contributions to the latter and the later “Around Again” cross over into the spellbinding.
“Closer”, another Bley piece steeps in bucolic beauty and proves just the right vehicle for Knuffke’s soothingly soaring cornet. A segue into the jaunty repeating motif of Bley’s “Syndrome” is near-sublime with Stacken balancing a probing right hand with anchoring punctuations from his left. Evans’ “Very Early” contrasts delightfully in its conveyance of a beguiling melodicism and finds the duo at their most lubricious and loquacious. Two takes of “Epilogue” diverge even further with the two folding in some seamless free improv after somberly structured theme statements.
Recorded in January of last year, the music already has a year and a half of shelf life on it due to Steeplechase’s stacked release docket. The uniform quality of what’s here compels the question as to what the partnership has been up to in the interim. More specifically, it piques immediate interest in what “new” repertory project of their devising might be coming down the pike before too long. -Derek Taylor, Dusted
Email conversation with Will Mason about the Messiaen Project and other things, August 2013.
Jesse Stacken/Kirk Knuffke with Kenny Wollesen LIke A Tree
(Steeplechase SCCD 31739)
****"The duo is more than simply curating.
It's performances are pitch-perfect displaying an intuitive understanding that brings something deeply personal to the project."
- Peter Margasak, Downbeat Read the full review!
After a fine duo disc from last year, Kirk Knuffke and Jesse Stacken have now added the great Kenny Wollesen to their ranks and come up with another wonderful disc. All twelve songs are covers and the selection features gems from Carla Bley (three), Steve Lacy (three), Ornette Coleman (two), John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Julius Hemphill and Misha Mengelberg. The selection of songs is telling. Playing songs by Steve Lacy is not so unusual since Mr. Knuffke is in a Steve Lacy tribute band called Ideal Bread. I can't recall the opening song which is Lacy's "No Baby" but it is does have a quirky sound, sort of Monk-like, perhaps Mr. Lacy's favorite composer. Carla Bley's "Olhos De Gato" is a somber, hypnotic sort of ballad with some exquisite piano from Mr. Stacken, melancholy cornet and sublime rolling drums and cymbals underneath. What is interesting is the certain songs sound so different when taken out of the context of the group that played the original version. Ornette's "Free" has a much different charm here played by a trio of cornet, piano and drums especially since Ornette almost never worked with pianists. Another pianist who most admires Monk is Dutchman Misha Mengelberg. His piece, "Hypochristmutreefuzz" also has a rather bent Monkish quality. Not sure where Steve Lacy's "Art" comes from but it is a quaint, hypnotic song with a ghost-like melody. Trane's "Saturn" comes from one of his last and most intense sessions, 'Interstellar Space'. Although both Nels Cline & Gregg Bendian and Louie Belogenis & Rashied Ali did cover all or some of these pieces, it is pretty rare. This version is a most impressive, turbulent and powerful with cascading waves of piano and drums with cornet sailing above the storm. Even rare still is to cover a song by Julius Hemphill from his early classic 'Dogon AD'. This song is called "The Painter" and it is one of the highlights of this disc with an unforgettable melody. "A Man is Like a Tree" is from one Albert Ayler's last albums, 'Music is the Healing Force of the Universe', certainly not one of his most popular efforts. It is a lovely, spiritual sounding song and it is done in a hushed, prayer-like way here. "Jesus Maria" is a favorite amongst fans of Carla Bley and it is indeed a perfect way to bring the disc to a grand close. The melody is precious the playing is quite elegant. This is a gem of a disc and well worthy of yours and my collections. - Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery
"Mixing and matching the pitches of 20th century classical music and jazz isn't new. (Monk did it, and so did James P. Johnson.) But where most jazz artists swing their weird notes in standard time, the pianist Stacken chooses to absorb the compositional pace of, say, Morton Feldman. Some of his bagatelles for improvising trio don't move very fast, but you can feel their cumulative impact. "Bagatelle No. 2" is a good starter: Propulsive and Schoenberg-like, it shows off drummer Jeff Davis' range to fine effect. And bassist Eivind Opsvik continues his ascent on this memorable recording.
- Seth Colter Walls, Rhapsody
"The pianist Jesse Stacken applies an obsessive conceptual rigor to his new album, “Bagatelles for Trio” (Fresh Sound New Talent), which negotiates a balance between classical form and jazz improvisation, in ways that aren’t obvious or forced. His colleagues on the album...are the bassist Eivind Opsvik and the drummer Jeff Davis; they have constituted a working unit for much of the last decade, and it shows.
-Nate Chinen, New York Times See the concert listing.
This is the third release from the Jesse Stacken Trio and the personnel has remained the same. A bagatelle is a short, unpretentious piece for piano which is presented in a set of pieces with contrasting tempos and moods. Each of the thirteen numbered bagatelles is like a scene from a series of stories or plays. This trio has grown stronger with each effort, hence Jesse has chosen his mates well. Stacken claims to be inspired by a diverse cast of musicians and composers like the Schlippenbach Trio, Bartok and Morton Feldman. The songs sound thematic as the trio explore and create changes ands moods. Some of the pieces are stripped down yet provide strong, skeletal suspense. Mr. Stacken describes what was the inspiration for or the each piece was constructed in the liner notes. There is definitely a sense of order to the way in which the entire CD unfolds. Jeff Davis remains one of the finest drummers in the New York area and here sounds particularly inspired. Excellent throughout.
- Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery
Jesse Stacken / Kirk Knuffke "Orange Was the Color"
When assembling a tribute to Charles Mingus with just cornet and piano, Kirk Knuffke and Jesse Stacken, respectively, considered their limitations. This session contains no prayer meetings, hits in the soul, fight songs or any Mingus piece that depends on the thrust of the ensemble. Instead the duo considered pieces that showed off Mingus’ writing prowess as opposed to his strong personality and bandleading skills. In doing so, they shined up several works that often get overlooked.
Three come from the lesser-known albums Mingus recorded for Bethlehem Records, a fruitful time between Tijuana Moods (also used here) and the landmark Mingus Ah Um. “East Coasting” and “Celia,” with its regular tempo shifts, adapt well to this setting. Stacken plays some staccato comps, which keeps the bop in “Slippers” and builds out the bluesy vamp of “Moanin’” (not the Bobby Timmons classic). Knuffke’s use of cornet rather than trumpet works well throughout, giving a slightly darker tone to the music. “So Long Eric,” originally something of an Ellingtonian blues line, benefits from the horn’s tone and sounds especially strong in the duo’s hands.
Although they lean heavily on deep cuts, Knuffke and Stacken can’t resist “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” It gets a slow and dramatic reading with heavy emphasis on the unique chord patterns that usually play second fiddle to the Prez homage of the song. While the album could’ve used a tad more Mingus drama, the lyrical bends (like the toy piano on “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”) make this a set that rises above the heap of albums paying tribute to jazz godfathers.
-Mike Shanley, JazzTimes
Cornetist Kirk Knuffke and pianist Jesse Stacken last teamed up on records for a CD of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington songs. On Orange Was The Color, they create fresh renditions of 11 Charles Mingus compositions. Mingus' music benefited from a wide range of tone colors, unusual dissonances and emotional playing, but the Knuffke-Stacken duet casts new light on his work by placing it in a very different context. While they hint at earlier versions, obviously their renditions are not as dense or complex as some of the originals. They picked out some of Mingus' more beautiful melodies (many from the 1957-58 period), and put their own feelings into the themes. Among the highlights are “Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love,” “Celia,”“Peggy's Blue Skylight,” “So Long Eric” and “Ecclusiastics.” This fine set, available from www.steeplechase.dk, is easily recommended.
For their second duo date, Kirk Knuffke and Jesse Stacken focused exclusively on the works of Charles Mingus. One important change prior to the session is Knuffke's switch from trumpet to cornet, resulting in a warmer, more intimate sound, while Stacken's versatile approach to piano adapts well to the bassist's demanding music. While earlier musicians have explored the Mingus songbook, Knuffke and Stacken chose music from several different periods and found new avenues into these timeless works, woodshedding over the music for over a year before entering the studio. Stacken's novel adaptation of "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" utilizes a toy piano in spots, suggesting a mother displaying affection for her child. The shimmering, lyrical setting of Mingus' elegy "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" is full of naked, raw emotion. "So Long, Eric," the bassist's sendoff to Eric Dolphy (as he departed Mingus' band to play as a single in Europe) is a boisterous affair, with Knuffke preaching on his horn asStacken plays a mix of gospel and hard bop to accompany him. Their exploration of "Celia," a musical portrait of Mingus' second wife, is another gem, capturing the duo facets of his gorgeous ballad. Longtime fans of Charles Mingus who know his recordings well will appreciate the duo's thoughtful, inventive interpretations of the bassist's compositions.
Ken Dryden, All Music.com
Balancing daring and restraint, Knuffke and Stacken address 11 of Charles Mingus’s compositions. Knuffke sets aside his trumpet in favor of cornet to intertwine, contrast and parallel his lines with Stracken’s piano. He achieves remarkable precision and velocity at low volume. Stracken equals Knuffke in the control and articulation departments. Among the highlights: a section of free counterpoint on “Ecclusiastics” and heartfelt treatment of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” The joy of their leap into “So Long Eric” is reminiscent of a cornet-piano team that thrived 85 years earlier: Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines.
Doug Ramsey, Rifftides
Jesse Stacken "Magnolia" Fresh Sound Records (FSNT 359):
Pianist Jesse Stacken, raised in Minneapolis and a New York resident for the better part of a decade, is making a strong name for himself through a diverse range of projects and associations. As a pianist, one can be quite easily associated with certain schools of playing - the avant garde or traditional mainstream two obvious directions. Luckily, improvised songbased piano music has considerably more wherewithal than a couple historical strains could signal and Stacken shows that categories exist to be mincemeat.
Magnolia, a trio with bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Jeff Davis, presents seven original compositions. Alternating between textured minimalism, spry postbop and resonantly sculpted poise, Stacken’s playing owes few clear stylistic debts. South African jazz of the Abdullah Ibrahim variety peppers “The Whip”, a bouncy and ringing rush through the townships via Ellington and Hampton Hawes, Stacken continually returning to the folksy melody as Opsvik and Davis maintain a taut, thick groove. The trio rarely moves with such lickety-split energy, rather generating tense and sometimes suspended interplay that coalesces into form, as in the martial “Crow Leaf Frog”, where the pianist gestures with lean arrows through the tune’s choppy rhythm.
The opening “Solstice” is like Mal Waldron’s “The Seagulls of Kristiansund” slowed down to a crawl, repeating and elaborating on cells in glacial embellishment towards a sly anthem. Too much cannot be made of Stacken’s partners here, with Davis’ dry punch teetering on the edge of bombast while Opsvik provides stoic, woody muscle and harmonic shade. In a landscape chock full of piano trios, there is definitely room for this threesome’s brilliant interplay.
-Clifford Allen, New York City Jazz Record.
We have already praised the excellent disc by saxophonist Peter Van Huffel, Like the Rusted Key. The pianist of this quartet, Jesse Stacken, has produced one of the most original trio CD's of the same label's catalogue (Fresh Sound - New Talent). We would call it an album full of personality. The music reveals itself through contrasting forms in a singular universe where the silence and lightness of the fragile notes is opposed by broken rhythms. Flowing together are the minimalist superimposed melodies of Solstice, the limping march of Magnolia, the swinging song of The Whip, the slow evanescent construction of Time Canvas, followed by an amazingly strong finale with Face where the tension reaches it's climax on one repeated note. A memorable musical experience for the patient listener who will discover many secrets.
Strongly supported by the diverse ability of bassist Eivind Opsvik, a painter with the bow, and a solid pizzicato; and the precise drummer of Jeff Davis; Jesse Stacken's phrasing seduces with his sense of sober lines and his refusal of useless virtuosity.
This second disc of a trio founded in 2005, (better) introduces one to a first class pianist who is an all around creative musician not to loose sight of. -Culture Jazz
Folks tend to think that there is not much new that can be done with the piano/bass/drums jazz formula. Those who know better, know that this isn't necessarily so since new piano trios discs pop up each month and there are still some surprises in store. This is the second offering from Jesse Stacken's piano trio, after a fine duo disc with Kirk Knuffke and a quartet with Peter Van Huffel. "Solstice" begins with just a few skeletal notes on the piano slowly repeating a short phrase, building quietly as it develops. As the piece evolves, the bass & drums come in and add to the repeating groove, the overall effect is subtly mesmerizing and a bit like the Necks but developing much quicker. Jesse likes to come up with one memorable line at a time, repeat it and then slowly twist it into a different idea. The bass and drums always enhance the phrase by adding sparsely to the pulse as it ascends. On "Aquatic House" it is the bass and drums that fill in the structure while the piano plays the sparse curves and corners. "The Whip" has one of great, slightly funky, effervescent melodies that will make you smile as soon as you hear it. The subdued vibe here helps to make this an exquisite, melancholy offering which feels just right when one is at their wits end and need to relax. There is something magical and/or dreamlike about this music, an elegant vibe that I find touching. This is one of the most charming piano trio discs I've heard in a long while. Bill Evans fans should dig this gem.
- Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery
Jesse Stacken is a member of the Peter Van Huffel Quartet, and that’s how I first came across his playing. This album – which features bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Jeff Davis - reveals him as a versatile, sensible pianist and composer per se, whose interests reside halfway through the exploration of wider spaces for notes and, especially, overtones to resound (the meditative opening "Solstice", or the introvert "Time Canvas") and more dissonant and metrically charged passages (the title track and certain sections of "Crow Leaf Frog"). In "The Whip" we were reminded of Vince Guaraldi's pianism and overall scents: those of you who are well acquainted with Charlie Brown's cartoons will immediately understand. Stacken shows a thoughtful, considerate attitude when he’s following a contemplative vein: the interaction between his spare shapes and Opsvik's frail arco in "Aquatic House" is daintily sustained by Davis' whispered gestures on the drum set. And yet the program is closed by a tune - "Face" - branded by the appearance of power chords, no less. This clever concomitance of diverse aspects of the same artistic personality is what ultimately renders the record satisfying. (Fresh Sound New Talent)
-Massimo Ricci, Temporary Fault
jesse stacken / kirk knuffke "mockingbird" steeplechase records (sccd 31677):
a number of piano/trumpet duo recordings have been made throughout jazz history, though most musicians prefer the safety net of having a full rhythm section. but these two men, still in their twenties at the time of the recording session, had the confidence and the ability to play without a net, recorded live to boot. pianist jesse stacken and trumpeter kirk knuffke met in new york vity in 2005, and shortly thereafter began jamming together. after experimenting with a bit of free jazz, they chose to record ten pieces by two jazz masters, though putting their own stamp on each of them. seven of the songs are by thelonious monk, including a few that aren't recorded very much. the cat-and-mouse rapid-fire interplay of "teo" (which includes snippets of "yesterday") is a wild affair, while their spacious hand-in-glove treatment of the ballad "reflections" captures the essence of it. The trumpeter opens the ellington/strayhorn masterpiece "isfahan" (from "far east suite") with an unaccompanied improvisation, while the duo slowly savors this timeless ballad, playing it seemingly slower than ellington himself to unveil its many facets. ellington's "sunset and the mockingbird" is a neglected gem from his "queen's suite"; knuffke's trumpet takes on a whimsical air in his solo, while stacken at times blurs the chords a bit with his liberal use of the sustain petal. this is the way jazz ought to be, taking risks and utilizing first takes, as was done on this enticing project.
-ken dryden, allmusic.com
If a Mount Rushmore for jazz is ever erected, Ellington and Monk will surely be among the countenances carved in the rock. Practically every player who chooses the idiom tackles tunes from one or the other at one time or another. That Everest-sized edifice of precedence makes the prospect of devoting an entire album to the composers’ works all the more prone to redundancy. Pianist Jesse Stacken and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke greet any warnings against such an action with a collective shrug. Both have valuable experience playing in free settings, Knuffke in particular on a string of albums for Clean Feed, 577 and KMB labels. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking serves them well in this context as they interpret ten tunes, seven by Monk and three pulled from Ducal suites, in front of an audience at the Bloomingdale School of Music where Stacken teaches.
The duo configuration of piano and trumpet is hardly novel, having its recorded jazz inception in the Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines masterpiece “Weatherbird”. Other partnerships have followed, perhaps most notably and prolifically through the pairing of Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins in an initial 1955 meeting and subsequent reunions over the following decades. The has even greater similarities to Braff’s later modernist-leaning conclave with Roger Kellaway given the Jaki Byard-like breadth Stacken brings to his constructions on the keys. Knuffke echoes Braff too in a warm, rounded tone and supple phrasing that parallels the elder man’s preferred parlance on cornet. Reference points are superficial though as Stacken and Knuffke speak their own shared language devoid of slavish regurgitation.
Both men are avid conversationalists in counterpoint, their colorful layering on a reading of “Teo” evincing just how complete their rapport. They rightly take clever liberties with the tunes, fixing Ellington’s “Such Sweet Thunder” with stark tango-style syncopation and slowing “Misterioso” to a languorous crawl. The lyrical rendering of “Reflections” is outright gorgeous and the pair follows it perfectly with the bouncing joviality of “Skippy”, Stacken’s off-handed slide into rambunctious stride beneath Knuffke’s burnished staccato. Most importantly, they take their time with the pieces and that unhurried pace pays huge dividends in the amount of space it opens up for the repartee. At just south of 50-minutes the set’s a bit short by Steeplechase standards and as Stacken notes in the notes, a few mistakes occur, but damn if they don’t matter a whit when the give and take that surrounds them is this good.
-Derek Taylor, Master of a Small House
Usually I try to be cautious to keep close to this blog's profile in terms of the music that I review : adventurous, innovative, expressive, boundary-shifting music, with deep artistic vision. But once in a while it's difficult to ignore or not to share my enthusiasm for music that does not fit this category.
Pianist Jesse Stacken and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke tackle the music of Ellington and Monk, but then in a context and with a stylistic revision that belongs to early jazz, and on top of this with the technical refinement of a classical chamber ensemble. The end result is musical joy from the very first note to the last. This is an ode to the beauty of composition, melody and interplay, without any further pretense or ambition. Whether "Bright Mississippi" or "Misterioso", or especially "Skippy", the versions this fantastic duo brings of Monk's compact music is crystal clear, precise and joyful. Alternating these with Ellington's more melancholy and bluesy compositions "Isfahan" and "Sunset and The Mocking Bird" is a great idea because it adds variation. The album ends with "Four In One", with both musicians playing the tune in unison at breackneck speed, and in truth, a piece to laugh out loud just from sheer listening enjoyment at their skills and at the end result. Not free, not avant-garde, but a daring and refreshing take on two icons of jazz history by two young musicians whose normal biotope is modern jazz. Enjoy!
-Stef, Free Jazz Blog
"mockingbird" named best tribute recording of 2009 by all about jazz - new york!
"this is nostalgia made vibrant, played with precision, depth, good taste, and a leisurely refusal to overcrowd the sonic space."
-martin longley, all about jazz new york. read the full review!
JESSE STACKEN & KIRK KNUFFKE - Mockingbird: The Music Of Thelonious Monk & Duke Ellington (Steeplechase 31677; EEC) Downtown piano wiz, Jesse Stacken, has a great trio disc out on Fresh Sound from last year that I raved about and is about to have another one on the same label soon. Trumpet man Kirk Knuffke is in Ideal Bread who did a swell tribute to Steve Lacy, as well as having two fine discs as a leader on the 577 and Clean Feed labels. For this duo effort, Jesse & Kirk cover select gems by Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk, two of jazz's most popular and influential composers. This duo set was recorded live at the Bloomingdale School of Music in NYC in September of 2008 and the sound is just right. Monk's "Light Blue" is first and given a fine treatment with an exuberant piano solo featured. I dig the way the duo twist Monk's "Teo" into fragments at the beginning before Jesse breaks into a strong two handed piano solo. Kirk also takes a great solo without wasting a note riding on top of Jesse's spinning note waves. Duke's "Such Sweet Thunder" is an interesting choice since it is rarely covered by anyone else than Duke's band. The piece rocks slowly with a pensive bass line played thunderously on the low end of the piano with Kirk taking an inspired solo that captures the history of jazz trumpet in a nutshell. Monk's "Reflections" is even more laid back than usual with a sublime trumpet solo that shines softly above the elegant, skeletal piano. "Skippy" is a perfect title for Monk's tune which does skip and rock back and forth in a great old-fashioned sort of way. Ellington & Strayhorn's "Isfahan" is another odd choice but is done with a haunting elegance. I like the way the duo slow down Monk's "Misterioso" to a more dreamy pace until Kirk takes a solo which spins more quirkly on top. "Bright Mississippi" is given a festive, jubilant treatment with a great piano solo featured. I can't recall ever hearing Duke's "Sunset and the Mockingbird" before this, but it is another calm and lyrical gem with some lovely trumpet. This great disc ends with the classic "Four in One", a most difficult tune that is a test of one's jazz chops. The duo do a fine job nonetheless working their way through the nooks and crannies and hairpin turns of this daredevil song. An excellent duo disc on all accounts.
- Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery
review of jesse stacken/kirk knuffke live at cornelia st. cafe, nyc:
"their repartee was crisp and in the pocket and their choices seemed to emphasize the sheer expressive range of canonical jazz.."
-david r. adler, all about jazz new york.
read the full review!
jesse stacken "that that" fresh sound records (fsnt 308):
"freedom," "dissonance" and "envelope-pushing" are the watchwords of this adventurous ecm-ish piano-trio outing by jesse stacken and his fellow provocateurs eivind opsvik on bass and jeff davis on drums. the three explore some dark, thorny terrain on "shady oak," distractions" and "inventor," demonstrating remarkable flexibility, an uncanny chemistry and an underlying capacity to swing. and zen-delicate rubato pieces like "sad sidewalk" and "birds in slow motion" make dramatic use of silence and breath. a rare gem.
-bill milkowski, jazztimes
JESSE STACKEN with EIVIND OPSVIK/JEFF DAVIS- That That (Fresh Sound NT 308; EEC) Featuring Jesse Stacken on piano, Eivind Opsvik on bass and Jeff Davis on drums. Ace pianist, Jesse Stacken, played here at DMG with Peter Van Huffel a few months back and just left us with copies of his fine debut disc. The rhythm section also backs Jeff's wife Kris in her trio, as well as in that recent jazz tribute to Black Sabbath (!?!) called 'Rocket Engine.'
Jesse composed all but two of the twelve pieces here with two group improvisations. I love how the trio erupts on the second piece, "Shady Oak," the dynamics and tension are bristling until Eivind takes a more contemplative bass solo and calms things down a bit. What amazes me is how tight this trio is and how they change direction, tempo and dynamics in mid-flow. In a blindfold test, you might just mistake them for Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams when they played for Miles. All but one of the pieces here are under five minutes, so the trio seems to compress their ideas into highly focused excursions. "Sad Sidewalk" is angelic, spacious, minimal and elegant without being too sweet. This trio has a way of being dramatic one minute and then simmering the next, reminding me of the way that life sometimes unfolds. On "North Shore," Jesse develops a couple of different themes as the trio hangs on to the powerful waves of his left hand while his right hand burns on top. Each piece here seems to tell a little story or set a different scene and each one is distinct. Jesse, again, works with a couple of different themes on "Ignored," one is Monk-like while circles around and expands upon that quirky stream. The way it builds into intense wave and then subsides is quite breathtaking. Without a doubt, one of the best piano dates we've heard so far this year.
- Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery.
"a piano trio led by jesse stacken - whose lyrical soul is evident since the very first chords that he articulates on the keyboard - and featuring an extremely competent bassist in eivind opsvik (from norway) and a sensitive drummer named jeff davis. i don’t remember of having ever met these artists before, yet enjoying their crystal-clear playing was a complete pleasure. formed in 2005, the group performs a nice blend of jazz-oriented compositions where improvisational spurts and a very conscious interplay are fundamental cards. the defining element of this album is a kind of veiled elegance often bordering on melancholy, both attributes quite apparent behind the façade of a complex metre or amidst some dissonant dissertation. i was reminded of certain old ecm chapters still to be liked on these shores, such as the works by the john abercrombie quartet circa “m” (of course minus the guitar); in fact, stacken made me think of richie beirach’s approach more than once. but, i stress, the whole trio is a treat for the ears, despite their choice of not overly trespassing the limits of well-conceived and executed architectural structures. brilliant music that will surely keep good company for many evenings to come, without the pretence of being remembered as a milestone yet guaranteeing almost one hour of detachment from the preoccupations of technical contortionism."
-massimo ricci, touching extremes
It was a pleasant surprise when I listened to Jesse Stacken, pianist of the Peter Van Huffel Quintet, who has shared the music stand with the young guitarist Scott Dubois, and is a leader who also shows very interesting stance. Stacken, now, takes flight with this CD which serves as his prologue, as well as his Mission Statement.
Accompanied by a non-contemptible rhythm section, formed by the Norwegian Elvind Opsvik and the American Jeff Davis, this trio is a very good example of the music that is being developed by certain youths in Brooklyn . Fresh Sound New Talent records has been putting out CDs for years that attempt to define a denomination of origin to this great New York Borough. At times the results have been more fortunate than others, and there has been a criterion of vagueness, but there are left these instances for posterity to remind us of what was cooking at the beginning of the millennium among young jazzmen of Brooklyn.
Focusing on Stacken, after listening intently to THAT THAT, we find a complete pianist, formed with a great capacity and ability that tells us about the many places he wants to go to. That lack of focus is normal in young musicians, and should not be an obstacle at the time of evaluating Stacken in its just measure. His “pianism” emerges in gushes full of life, taking us from one place to the next without fully exploding, but maintaining our interest intact throughout the CD.
Stacken sounds at moments like Andrew Hill, Paul Bley, Jarrett, Mehldau and even as Craig Taborn, still undefined, but shows solid technique and a fresh risk-taking approach.
THAT THAT is a very interesting debut in that Jesse Stacken, with innocence according to the circumstances, shows a superior quality to many supposedly consecrated pianists. The raw material is there. The maturity will come soon enough. Now he must go forward and show us what he wants to do.
Yahve M. de la Cavada. - tomajazz.com
Jesse Stacken, a pianist based in New York, has released a really interesting and enjoyable album entitled "That That," joined by Eivind Opsvik on bass and Jeff Davis on drums. Going in with no background on any of the musicians on the album, I was interested to hear what they had to offer. I get a lot of promos these days for a number of reasons, and I set the bar higher for reviewing randoms than I do music I'm familiar with.
One of the first things that struck me in listening to the album was the focused brevity of the tracks. The recorded medium used to provide mandatory constraints on the length of compositions and improvisations recorded in early jazz. By the time we get to the LP that has become less of a concern, and in the age of the CD we have Pat Metheny releasing The Way Up, a bloated 68 minute composition that seems to fill up space just because it can.
There's something to be said for restraint and constraints, and the impact that kind of focus has on musicians who are given a certain amount of time to put in their two cents. I'm all for coloring outside the lines, but it's not always what's called for by the music and the players, and the focus on this album is not only refreshing but is also works.
There's a great balance of improvised pieces and compositions on the album, and the improvisation that opens the affair was one of the things that drew me into the listening experience. The trio has tuned their rapport and achieve powerful states of improvisational flow as a result. I'm not sure if it's the length of the tracks or the way they flow together, but the whole listening experience goes by quickly and seamlessly.
Overall, a really impressive album from a musician who I was not familiar with but will certainly look out for in the future.
- dan melnick, soundslope
"jeff davis and [eivind] opsvik are the rhythm team supporting pianist jesse stacken on that that. stacken directs the trio's energy more through the often-fractured rhythmis abstractions of his piano work than through thematically-driven compositions though there are plenty of wonderful ones here; "shady oak", "distractions" and "ignored" are fine displays of his fluency with ambitious rhythmic structures. nonetheless, the ear can't help but be drawn to extemporaneous invention that flows from stacken's playing. davis provides empathatic support, matching stacken's knack for multiplicity with fluid time-keeping and colorful, lush cymbal work. as with opsvik's overseas project, this is an ensemble that has worked together for a while now. the energy ebbs and flows, displaying unity towoards a common directions, even as fragments of tonalities and rhythmic fluidity are strewn throughout the sonic environment." - wilbur mackenzie, all about jazz new york.
"on “that that” (fresh sound new talent), his quietly restless new album, the pianist jesse stacken presents a program of all-original material; he also showcases his intuitive and slippery rapport with the bassist eivind opsvik and the drummer jeff davis, who rejoin him for this cd-release gig." -nate chinen, new york times
"jesse stacken, a person of exceptional talent who has been active on the ny music scene since 2002, is one of the remarkable young jazz pianists. this soulful cd celebrates the fruits of his labor with the trio which was formed in 2004. the powerful rhythm secion of the bassist eivind opsvik and the drummer jeff davis, creates dangerously dark and unique sound. listening to the trio's sharp and thrilling interplay makes one's hand sweat. this is truly a very sensational cd." -diskunion, japan.
"refreshingly, a piano trio that gels perfectly in a way that doesn't recall grooving trendsetters such as est. instead stacken's inside-outside playing is closer to paul bley's enigmatic tonal world. "
-selwyn harris, jazzwise magazine
listen up feature in all about jazz ny - february 2008
*****Trumpeter Liam Sillery’s Phenomenology is so natural that only one word can be used to describe it: perfect. Hearkening back to the great outside-leaning Blue Note recordings of the mid and late-’60s, Phenomenology gets better with each listen, as details and intricacies continuously come to light that were missed previously. The music’s textures, rhythms and sonorities continuously morph, but not in a distracting, overbearing, or contrived way. There’s freedom and a relaxed ease in Phenomenology’s every facet, giving the listener a sense that what is heard is the only possible solution given the group’s vision.
The title track, which opens the album, establishes the record’s aesthetic. After running through the jaunty, bitonal head, Sillery thoroughly interrogates a melodic fragment based off the tune. As the background texture thickens and shifts, bassist Thomas Morgan and pianist Jesse Stacken add statements based on Sillery’s ideas. Stacken’s slowly intensifying piano pedal-point stokes Matt Blostein’s probing alto solo, and after a quiet beginning Stacken’s solo evolves into a shimmering wall of sound, built with plenty of tremolos and sustain pedal. Think of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto For Left Hand. Then, as if coming out of fog, the head emerges. Blostein’s key-lime tart alto sound is the perfect foil for Sillery’s warm, lush, trumpet tone, which is best seen on the beautiful ballad “Koi.” Sillery, who abstains from high-note pyrotechnics in favor of more nuanced and lyrical middle-register playing, begins the piece with plaintive solo lines. As he continues Stacken adds quiet arpeggios, Morgan plucks out sparse bass notes and Vinnie Sperrazza softly splashes radiant cymbals. Enter Blostein, who adds sensitive countermelodies that weave in and out of Sillery’s lines.
The end result is sublime.
Peter Van Huffel Like The Rusted Key (FSNT 361)
"Stacken’s piano is a source of tremendous momentum, his dense, rhythmically explosive playing sometimes invoking the drive and complexity of early Cecil Taylor. He thrives particularly on the pointillistic “Tangent” and in the “Beast” series that arises throughout the CD and which alternately emphasizes tensile formal structures and free improvisation." Stuart Broomer, All About Jazz - NY
peter van huffel quintet "silvester battlefield" fresh sound records (fsnt 290):
"pianist jesse stacken, who comes to nyc by way of minnesota, is adept in his role as both the trigger for and connection between these mood shifts. such is the case on "delirium", where he intricately combines with dubois to lay down a frenetic rhyhtm, allowing van huffel to blow bop, and then artfully picks up the leader's subtle cue to set a pensive mood. his "good mornings" is the albums most touching moment and the vehicle for van huffel's most tender tone."
- elliot simon, all about jazz - ny. read the full review at allaboutjazz.com
"i'd also single out pianist jesse stacken's lovely and powerful good mornings. more riveting basswork from bates yields to a sumptous, spacious theme, only to have its consonance grow darker and more dissonant and interesting. this track - and really the disc as a whole - is quite a journey and this kind of play by play does it a disservice, sighting its surprise value."
-peter hum, ottawa citezen
liam sillery "minor changes" oa2 records (oa2 22020):
"the other major voice here is pianist jesse stacken, who delivers rich, plush chords when playing behind other soloists and adds a playful touch in his own breaks."
-forrest dylan bryant. read the full review at fojazz.com
"pianist stacken contributes a thoughtful, lyrical solo to "prana."" -paul oberlin. read the full review at jazzreview.com
sherisse rogers' "slight of hand" (self released):
"a hot piano solo by jesse stacken gives [blue skies] just enough of the original taste to make it fit the program."
- jim santella : jazz improv magazine.