Kirk Knuffke & Jesse Stacken - "Saturn" (Like a Tree)
Steve Lacy, Julius Hemphill, Misha Mengelberg and Albert Ayler all make their debuts on the Steeplechase label (at least compositionally) thanks to Like a Tree, the third outing by cornetist Kirk Knuffke and pianist Jesse Stacken. The duo’s previous two albums for the Danish label explored the sonorous songbooks of Ellington, Monk and Mingus, collectively a jazz triumvirate if ever there was one. Their latest set tinkers with that winning repertory formula by reorienting the canvas to include luminaries more commonly associated with the freer end of the jazz spectrum. They also open up the instrumentation to include Kenny Wolleson’s drums, an inspired move. The project might initially remind some listeners of Ken Vandermark’s Free Jazz Classics series for the Atavistic label, but Knuffke and Stacken seem to be after something different. Where Vandermark’s crew commonly used canonically averse tunes as hard-charging blowing vehicles, the focus here is on more mannered and melodically nuanced improvisations.
Knuffke’s sound on brass is keenly suited to the circumstances. His cool, contoured style of locution incorporates showy valve effects only sparingly, if at all, and at times he conjures in the mind what an adventurous amalgam of Ruby Braff and Kenny Wheeler might sound like through his balance of melodic acuity and calmly confident bravado. Stacken’s piano approach combines a complete command of dynamics along with an acrobat’s agility and poise. Carla Bley’s “Olhos de Gato” and Lacy’s “Art” each open with preludes of pointillistic pianistic rumination before dilating into spacious and romantic tone poems built on close conversation. On Coltrane’s “Saturn,” the three players avoid the volcanic precedent of the seminal Interstellar Space version, electing instead for a rendering where Stacken captures the sweeping Moorish gravitas that was McCoy Tyner’s trademark with Trane. Wolleson’s rolling syncopations and colorations here and elsewhere are beautifully integrated into the existing rapport of the duo. He’s an instant and integral asset from the first track, a playful rundown of Lacy’s Monk-skewed “No Baby.”
The shared comedic character of the trio also manifests with Mengelberg’s “Hypochristmutreefuzz,” a diabolical tune that almost onomatopoeically echoes the trickiness of its structural terrain, and a third Lacy shot, the Nawlins-meets-Africa workout “The Crust.” By comparison, a pair of Ornette Coleman-penned freebop pieces, deliver some good meat and potatoes, melody-adherent blowing. Hemphill’s “The Painter” from the recently reissued Dogon A.D. demonstrates just how deep in the catalog they’re willing to dig in search of a good tune, while through Ayler’s “A Man is Like a Tree” they manage to muster tribute to the profundity of the saxophonist’s iconoclastic persona without the least bit of fervor or bombast. “Jesus Maria,” another Bley classic, is an apposite closer, with Knuffke translating the lonesome cerulean sound of the Jimmy Giuffre clarinet to a brass recital vernacular atop lush accompaniment. As good as Knuffke and Stacken’s earlier two records are, the successful conscription of Wolleson in this context proves that preservation of the trio configuration moving forward could offer even greater returns.