Jesse Stacken/Kirk Knuffke

Orange Was The Color
Steeplechase SCCD 31717

Alexander Von Schlippenbach/Manfred Schoof

Blue Hawk

Jazzwerkstatt JW 119

Participants in these brass-piano duos are at least four decades apart in age and from two different countries, but each configuration has conceived a personal approach to sound al, but in a fashion in this reductionist setting.

Two non-East Coasters transplanted to Brooklyn, pianist Jesse Stacken and cornetist Kirk Knuffke are part of the floating gestalt of the Apple’s young performers. Both have worked with a variety of tyro and veteran musicians including saxophonist Michael Blake, bassist Lisle Ellis and drummer Kenny Wollesen. In 2009 the duo released a CD recasting tunes by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, and Orange Was The Color does the same for 11 Charles Mingus compositions in a balladic configuration.

Born in Magdeburg in 1936 and in Berlin in 1938, respectively, trumpeter Manfred Schoof and pianist Alex von Schlippenbach with seminal bands such as Globe Unity and smaller units helped define European Free Jazz more than 15 years before the births of Stacken or Knuffke,. Over the years, singly and alone, the two have explored a variety of sounds in the company of other improvisers such as British saxophonist Evan Parker. Tellingly, although both are in their seventh decade, they have created a 15-track CD of mostly original material which not only is more formalist than their mid-1960s sound excursions, but could be a low-key counterpart to the contemporary Jazz they were playing before the Free Jazz breakthrough.

In context and comparison to the Stacken/Knuffke CD, Blue Hawk has a recital air about it. This may be a reflection of Schoof’s oft-expressed interest in New music. Certainly throughout, his trumpet tone is usually full, rounded and romantic – with or without capitalization – while von Schlippenbach’s piano styling is, in the main, methodical, moderato and chromatic. Noteworthy is the duo’s treatment of the set’s one standard, Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York”. Languidly built around panoramic arpeggios and patterning from the pianist and a flowery theme statement from the brassman, extended with shakes, it’s performed not that differently from the way that, say, trumpeter Clark Terry and pianist Hank Jones would have done it in the early 1960s.

Most of the remainder of the material appears to accept this autumnal conservatism as a given. Although an occasional bravado tongue flutter or squeaky triplet is heard from Schoof, his preferred mode of expressions is muted, physically or orally, either from trumpet or flugelhorn. Meanwhile the pianist’s chording and comping is on the quiescent side, even on his own “Twelve Tone Tales”. Among the few sound barrier-breakers is the adjustment made on von Schlippenbach’s “Adjustment”. Here the piano arpeggios are livelier; the composer’s touch harder and mixed with glissandi, while Schoof chirps as well as expressing himself in longer-lined intervals. Oddly, considering the pianist’s long infatuation with Monk’s oeuvre, the title – and final – tune is taken adagio and lacks most of its composer’s –Monk`s –angularity. Instead von Schlippenbach emphasis blues notes and Schoof expansive rubato.

Moving from a Blue Hawk to an Orange Dress, the American duo’s treatment of Charles Mingus compositions is equally restful, but with none of the hushed serenity that permeates the other disc. It may be that as a volatile character, Mingus’ pieces must reflect his churning intensity. But credit must be given to the two interpreters for creating a disc that while also recital-like and low-key doesn’t sacrifice drama. In a way the two are like a man executing gymnastic dance steps while calmly maintaining a crouching position.

Much of this can be attributed to the arrangements, where after the theme statement, often in unison, the two embark on different interpretations. Freed from comparison with Mingus brassmen, except maybe for Thad Jones who also played cornet and Ted Curson when he played pocket trumpet, Knuffke is free to go his own way, which can include mellow cadenzas as finales or penultimate theme variants; melodic pops and grace notes in unexpected places and triplet exaggerations when necessary. As for Stacken, if there are any echoes of Mingus’ pianists in his playing, they may relate to Horace Parlan and Jaki Byard, both of whom had a tendency to add gospel chording or ragtime-like asides in solos, something Stacken introduces with finesse here. Most of the time however, his playing seems to veer into unhurried rent-party-like expositions, encompassing pedal pressure, straight patterning and unhurried chording.

“Ecclusiastics” for instance is given an appropriately gospelish rendition, which when it threatens to become overbearing is lightened by the cornetist’s melody variant that pushes the pianist towards discursive polyphony. Knuffke’s slurs speed up the title tune with staccato coloration as the pianist adds high-intensity pressure. But the end result is homey as well as lively. Meanwhile “So Long Eric” balances stuttering blue notes from the cornet with regularized comping from the keyboard, following contrapuntal asides from both players, and evolves in perfect harmony. If Stacken’s multi-fingered but cohesively related chords seem to transcend Mingus’ vision – rightly or wrongly – then Knuffke’s citing of a familiar Bebop line keeps the proceedings grounded.

If there is a drawback to the session, it’s a matter of programming. With the limited tone blending available with only two instruments – as opposed to Mingus’ full-band arrangements – more care should have been taken to ensure that tunes of similar tempos were kept farther apart.

Now that Stacken and Knuffke have shown how well they can improvise on other composers’ material in this context, a duo disc of all originals would appear to be in order. As for Blue Hawk, Free Music followers of Von Schlippenbach and Schoof – as well as others – will probably be piqued to hear how they sound in a formalist situation.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Orange: 1. Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love 2. East Coasting 3. Celia 4. Peggy's Blue Skylight 5. Moanin’ 6. Slippers 7. Orange Was The Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk 8. So Long Eric 9. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat 10. Ecclusiastics 11. Dizzy Moods

Personnel: Orange: Kirk Knuffke (cornet) and Jesse Stacken (piano)

Track Listing: Blue: 1. Duolog 2. Acht 3. Deforested 4. Twelve Tone Tales 5. Fast Winds 1 6. Adjustment 7. Fast Winds 2 8. Canto Dedicato 9. Pierrot's Morning Exercises 10. Fast Winds 3 11. Still Water 12. Autumn In New York 13. St. Catherine 14. Spread 15. Blue Hawk

Personnel: Blue: Manfred Schoof (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Alexander von Schlippenbach (piano)