Like a Tree - The NYCJR Review

Ken Dryden NYCJR

Pianist Jesse Stacken immersed himself in the New York City jazz scene in 2002 when he came to work on his Master’s degree at Manhattan School of Music. Since completing his studies in 2004, Stacken has led a trio with bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Jeff Davis and worked in a duo with cornetist Kirk Knuffke. In addition to his recordings as a leader or co-leader, Stacken has recorded with Peter Van Huffel and Liam Sillery and performed with Tom Rainey, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Tyshawn Sorey and Michael Blake, among others.

Stacken made two earlier recordings with Knuffke, focusing on the music of Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. For their third session Like A Tree, they add drummer Kenny Wollesen to free up the pianist’s rhythmic role in exploration of more avant garde pieces. The late Steve Lacy is somewhat overlooked as a composer; the trio’s interpretation of “No Baby” features plenty of fireworks from Knuffke and Stacken’s driving attack. Fans of Eric Dolphy’s album Last Date will be delighted with the presence of pianist Misha Mengelberg’s demanding  “Hypochristmutreefuzz”, which the trio devours whole, adding a humorous touch not present on the original recording. The trio reaches a climax in John Coltrane’s “Saturn”, building it from a chant into a majestic improvisation, with Stacken blending world music, classical influences and free jazz into his solo. Their explorations of the music of Carla Bley (“Olhos de Gato”, “And Now The Queen”, “Jesus Maria”), Ornette Coleman (“Peace” and “Free”), Albert Ayler (“A Man is like a Tree”) and Julius Hemphill (“The Painter”) are equally rewarding.

The pianist’s Bagatelles for Trio, featuring his working trio with Opsvik and Davis, is a series of 13 short compositions designed to take the listener on an unusual journey with striking sounds and a variety of moods and tempi. The influence of Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg can be heard at times while portions of the music would make an effective soundtrack for a suspense film. There are numerous surprises in this
collection, which the trio regularly performs in the order the bagatelles are programmed. The opening piece features Stacken manipulating the piano strings and at one point achieving a sound suggesting a toy piano while Opsvik’s mournful arco bass in the introduction adds to its edginess. In the third bagatelle, piano is complemented by brooding bass and offcenter percussion. Stacken’s extensive use of the sustain pedal in his deliberate, spacious fifth bagatelle builds a formidable tension. Bagatelles For Trio is music that demands the listener’s full attention to appreciate its nuances.

By Ken Dryden