Article written by Eric Fine, Downbeat Magazine
Images courtesy Downbeat Magazine


Philadelphia’s Puzzlebox Pieces together Space for original octet Approach

Bassist Keith DeStefano leads the Puzzlebox octet, and his original repertoire receives little exposure at proper jazz clubs. It’s not the only trend DeStefano has bucked. He also bypassed music school, and began composing and playing the upright bass fairly late in life.

“I would just constantly have ideas for tunes,” the Philadelphia bandleader said. “The natural thing to do was to get a band together and play them. It’s not a reaction like, I’m never going to play ‘Satin Doll’ for the rest of my life. You know, Duke Ellington, the guy’s a genius. I just felt like I had a thing that I had to do. But it doesn’t make any sense at all to do this.”

DeStefano, a Red Bank, N.J., native, moved to Philadelphia to study painting at the University of the Arts. After college, he considered becoming a fiction writer or playwright before shifting his focus to music.

“I took the path of least resistance,” DeStefano said. “Composition just came easily. I was never blocked. I would just write constantly, and I wouldn’t judge what came out. I might get one good tune out of 20 things and I would learn from the rest.”

DeStefano received his upright bass, a 1920s Juzek, from his wife as an engagement present in 2000. He had previously played electric guitar and electric bass. In lieu of music school, DeStefano studied with the late Robert Riccardi, a longtime bassist with the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra, and attended Odean Pope’s Collective Voices workshop, where he developed an affinity for large ensembles.

Puzzlebox began earning notice in 2005 around Philadelphia with its independently released debut album, Just When I Thought. “At the time, Philly was very much a [straightahead jazz haven],” DeStefano said. “It was tougher for people doing original music back then. There weren’t a lot of venues.

There were a lot of other guys that were just starting out,” he continued. “They wanted to do original jazz and keep it going, and keep it vital by writing new music. And I think if you look out there now, that’s a lot of what’s going on in Philadelphia. It’s a very vital ‘new jazz’ scene. A lot of it is underground, but it’s there. It’s kind of an exciting time.”

Indeed, Philadelphia boasts two dozen such bands, whose youthful lineups draw inspiration from a plethora of styles. What’s more, a handful of venues present such acts, alongside rock, hip-hop, avant-garde and world music bookings. These venues include Tritone in Center City, the Trocadero Theatre in Old City and Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown.

In addition, Chris' Jazz Café in Center City, long a bastion for mainstream fare, has booked Puzzlebox and peers such as Matt Davis’ Aerial Photograph, Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound and the Augmented Fourthtet.

Earlier editions of Puzzlebox featured a retro sound that recalled Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool. The group’s second album, A Place To Be, came out in July and features the same attention to melody, in addition to the influences of Charles Mingus and Ellington.

Larry Toft, Puzzlebox’s trombonist, said, “With Keith’s tunes there’s definitely a melody there, and he develops it, and then he takes it to the next step, which is exciting and harmonically challenging and progressive. The band can also play the more avant-garde [venues] as well. I think it very much lends itself to that because we can open up the tunes and stretch a little bit and kind of go off the chart.”

For all of its versatility, Puzzlebox needs to spend more time on the road if it wants to survive. “We’re running out of places to play in Philadelphia,” DeStefano said. “I want to really play more festivals. You get to play for a larger, appreciative audience, people who actually want to hear your stuff.”