December 2009

AAJ Staff By

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Jesse Stacken and Kurt Knuffke

Cornelia Street Cafe

New York, NY November 8, 2009

When pianist Jesse Stacken and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke played Cornelia Street Café (Nov. 8th) to celebrate their SteepleChase duo release Mockingbird, they surveyed not only Monk and Ellington tunes—the album's focus—but also demanding works by Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus. Their repartee was crisp and in the pocket and their choices seemed to emphasize the sheer expressive range of canonical jazz. Case in point: They opened with Monk's "Reflections," an opulent ballad highlighting Knuffke's warm legato tone, and closed with "Skippy," one of Monk's faster and trickier lines, played over Stacken's old-school stride piano rhythm. There were blues numbers, too, in minor- and major-key varieties: first, Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder," with its emphatic, stomping bass line, and later Monk's "Misterioso," a slow study in wide ascending intervals. Knuffke opened the first Mingus piece, "Ecclusiastics," with playful rubato musings and Stacken introduced Mingus' lush ballad "Orange Was the Color..." in a similar fashion, returning subtly to the stride piano motif on both tunes. The Tristano items—"Two Not One" and "Lennie-Bird"—proved to be the virtuosic high points, conclusive tests of agility and duo cohesion that Stacken and Knuffke nailed to the wall. But knowing when to speak softly is just as crucial a skill and "Sunset and the Mockingbird," one of Ellington's most radiant melodies, provided just the occasion.

Mulgrew Miller

Dizzy's Club

New York City

November 11, 2009

The great pianist Mulgrew Miller, leading his sextet Wingspan at Dizzy's Club (Nov. 11th), showed a marked preference for lying in wait and then leaping. He opened in a bright swing vein with "Return Trip," letting vibraphonist Steve Nelson, altoist Antonio Hart and trumpeter Duane Eubanks all have their say before winding through the cascading changes himself, calmly at first, falling into progressively deeper sync with bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer Rodney Green. He spoke last again on the finale, Hank Mobley's brisk modified blues "The Breakthrough" and this time only to trade fours ferociously with Green in one of the set's creative climaxes. Miller's brilliance means you want to hear more of him and happily most of his recent discs are trio dates (two featuring Green on drums). That's not to deny Wingspan's many rewards. There's a rich, Oliver Nelson-like quality to Miller's orchestration, particularly on "The Sequel." Hart's solos were all-out burners; his flight on "You and the Night and the Music" was especially well-conceived and dramatic. Nelson's turn on "The Sequel" was a complex web of exploratory phrasing. Eubanks brought a lovely tone to his ballad feature, Horace Silver's "Peace," but Miller did more with the harmonic innards of the tune in a mere half-chorus. Yes, jazz is supposed to be loose, but several awkward transitions and late entrances, with horn players scrambling back to the mic, seemed to reveal an overall lack of engagement.

—David R. Adler

John Butcher

Issue Project Room

Brooklyn, NY

November 11, 2009

Over the last decade, John Butcher has become a clear and present master of solo extended technique. Not quite a minimalist (even if he has tendencies) and not exactly an electronicist (though electricity plays a discrete part), he is an explorer of the physical properties of the saxophone. His playing on Nov. 11th at Issue Project Room was ragged and metallic, repetitive and rhythmic. He started the set standing surprisingly close to the audience for a brashly articulated improvisation and then retreated to a microphone for a display of his most exciting and enigmatic recent work. Creating a channel between microphone and speaker, his instrument became a sound chamber, electricity replacing breath. He used the sax keys to shape the feedback waves, carefully massaging the sound, never letting the overtones become earsplitting wails. Instead, the sound is rather as if birds lived underwater. Most often, saxophones sound like their mouthpieces—reedy, wood plus wind. Butcher manages to place the sound lower, to make it not just the head but also the body of the instrument that resonates. He is the rare musician who is at his best on his own, but cellist Okkyung Lee brought out a different side of him in their duo set. Butcher seemed to stick closely to her lead, so when she worked the bow forcefully or bounced it lightly against the strings the improvisations went in the most interesting directions. They played hard and soft, with music, it seemed, residing in the middle.

Jemeel Moondoc


New York City

November 5, 2009


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