Zivit Shlank at phawker.com


Eric Fine - DownBeat

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.” —Eric Fine

Doug Simpson- Audiophile Audition

Karl Stark - Philadelphia Inquirer

Keith DeStefano & Puzzlebox
A Place To Be
(www.puzzleboxjazz.com ***)

Bassist and leader Keith DeStefano evokes some pleasant associations with his Phillybased
band Puzzlebox. Tunes such as "11th Hour" feel like softer hard bop with big and
brassy horn lines and a strong pulse.

In ambitious writing that ranges up to a nonet, DeStefano often creates a sizzle that
ignites soloists including pianist Anam Owili-Eger, saxophonists Maxfield Gast and
Steven Gokh, trumpeter/flutist Stan Slotter, and guest altoist Bobby Zankel.

DeStefano plumbs some softer layers on "Ronan's Dream" and even explores a potential
crime soundtrack on "Half Remembered Theme from a Film Noir." In beer terms, the
effect of this set can be quite strong and hoppy at times. Yet DeStefano's sense of the
avant-garde keeps his audience close by.

- Karl Stark
- Philadelphia Inquirer
- Sunday August 8, 2010

David Adler - Philadelphia Weekly

November 18th, 2010
Philly-based Keith DeStefano is a late musical bloomer—he attended UArts to study painting—but the bassist/composer has made up for lost time with his enigmatic octet Puzzlebox. The group is Mingus-like in its swinging abandon and its aura of bluesy romance, not to mention its compositional seriousness. Fragments of baritone sax, trombone and flute leap out from an appealing tangle of reeds and brass. DeStefano’s ear leads him to longish pieces (six to 11 minutes or so) that are nonetheless tightly conceived, never overcooked. It’s all there on Puzzlebox’s two discs to date, Just When I Thought and this year’s sleeper gem A Place to Be, featuring the brightly promising Philadelphians Maxfield Gast (saxophones), Larry Toft (trombone) and more. (David R. Adler)

AD Amorosi - Philadelphia CityPaper