Keith DeStefano & Puzzlebox – A Place to Be – self-released [www.puzzleboxjazz.com], 73:20 ****:
(Keith DeStefano – bass; Mark Allen – baritone saxophone; Joe Falcey – drums; Maxfield Gast – soprano saxophone (tracks 2, 4, 8), alto saxophone (tracks 1, 3, 6, 8, 9); Steven Gokh – tenor saxophone; Anam Owili-Eger – piano; Larry Toft – trombone; Stan Slotter – trumpet, flute (tracks 2, 4, 7); Bobby Zankel – alto saxophone (track 5); Thomas Razler – tenor saxophone (tracks 7, 9))
Philadelphia bassist Keith DeStefano brings his discerning style to his second outing as leader, A Place to Be, credited to a retooled configuration of his now larger ensemble, Puzzlebox. DeStefano wanted to expand his compositional horizons – he penned all nine tracks – and was motivated to work with a greater sonic palette, thus Puzzlebox became an octet, plus several guests. It all adds up to an outgoing and wide-ranging 73-minute accomplishment balanced between spontaneity and intricate arranging.
DeStefano’s compositions encourage engaging and resourceful performances. This is typified by the longest piece, the opening “Hair of the Dog,” where the group takes more than 11 minutes to explore the chord structure for improvisational opportunities. Certainly DeStefano’s intent was to make this a memorable tune akin to some of Duke Ellington’s projects, a goal winningly achieved. DeStefano’s ideas on using increased instrumentation to demonstrate the textural possibilities of combining arranged music with unrestricted jazz is something he learned while working with fellow Philly artist Odean Pope. Listening to “Hair of the Dog” and the flowing, grooving “6:25 PM” it is obvious DeStefano’s education paid off.
The second-lengthiest cut, “6:25 PM,” has an ambitious, self-referential arrangement: there is a bit of Mingus found in the witty changes and offbeat harmonies, while imaginative coloring that echoes Gil Evans is accented by flute, twin saxes and trombone. A highlight is Anam Owili-Eger’s impressionist piano solo.
Much of DeStefano’s material has an imagery-based approach, like all great soundtracks. That cinematic forte comes to fruition indelibly on “Half Remembered Theme from a Film Noir,” a narrative number with notable contributions from Owili-Eger, flautist Stan Slotter and saxophonists Mark Allen (on baritone) and Maxfield Gast (on soprano). If Bernard Hermann and Ellington had ever collaborated it might have resulted in this bluesy effort.
DeStefano gives autonomous release to another Philly mainstay, alto sax ace Bobby Zankel, on a fresh rendition of “The Invisible Redux,” which was initially offered on Puzzlebox’s debut. Zankel drifts and soars above the orchestrated foundation. DeStefano guides the gathered musicians through several tempo modulations and at a few points the assemblage erupts into a fast ascent and Zankel really takes off. DeStefano’s other visitor is longtime friend, tenor saxophonist Thomas Razler, featured prominently on the supple ballad “Little Fish” and the zippy closer, “11th Hour,” a straightforward and sturdy excursion that deserves to be included in any jazz big band repertoire. It’s a fitting end to a frequently enjoyable undertaking that illustrates DeStefano’s ability to create lucid melodies that allow musicians to carry the music to invigorating harmonic heights.
1. Hair of the Dog
2. Ronan’s Dream
3. 6:25 PM
4. Half Remembered Theme from a Film Noir
5. The Invisible Redux
7. Little Fish
8. The Sum of Its Destructions
9. 11th Hour
— Doug Simpson