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Jesse Stacken / Kirk Knuffke: Mockingbird

Martin Longley By

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This album's subtitle is The Music of Thelonious Monk & Duke Ellington, and it's refreshing to find the two pianist/composers united in a single conception, pointing out that they probably have more similarities than differences. This selection's other strong point (and this is all before its players even strike a note) is that the repertoire avoids almost all of the accustomed tune choices. From Monk, there's "Light Blue," "Teo," "Reflections" and "Bright Mississippi." From Ellington (and Billy Strayhorn), "Such Sweet Thunder" and "Sunset And The Mockingbird."

Trumpeter Kirk Knuffke in particular is identified with new jazz in its more adventurous attack mode. Here, he and pianist Jesse Stacken seem intent on taking the music back to almost a generation before the compositions, as if they were being interpreted in the '20s-'30s. The technique succeeds, lending the material a quaint dignity and turning away from the avant de- or re-construction avenue that would have been an obvious choice. So, the vintage becomes the vanguard.

The album was recorded live in 2008, at the Bloomingdale School Of Music, where Stacken teaches and is both playful and brightly communicative. Melodies are constructed jointly and the twosome seem to be imagining orchestral arrangements, investing the readings with a large-scale concept that belies actual intimacy. Monk's "Skippy" is bushy-tailed and bouncing while Duke's "Isfahan" sounds like a stylistic co-mingling with the beret-ed one. "Mysterioso" has an almost classical politeness to its introduction, then Knuffke pepper-dusts a solo that could be arriving freshly from 1925. Again, there's an orchestra in their heads during "Sunset And The Mockingbird" and Monk himself might be showering tiny trinkles throughout the closing "Four In One."

This is nostalgia made vibrant, played with precision, depth, good taste and a leisurely refusal to overcrowd its sonic space.

Track Listing: Light Blue; Teo; Such Sweet Thunder; Reflections; Skippy; Isfahan; Misterioso; Bright Mississippi; Sunset And The Mockingbird; Four In One.

Personnel: Kirk Knuffke: trumpet; Jesse Stacken: piano.

Title: Mockingbird | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: SteepleChase Records


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