It was Friday the 13th, and there was terrific music going on all over town -- including several shows that under other circumstances I would have never missed -- but the debut performance of Joshua White's new band, Polyphase, at UCSD's the Loft rendered all other options moot in my book.
Polyphase develops free-form funk grooves from the potent rhythm section of Stephen McKinney's electric bass and brother Greg McKinney's drums. But the wellspring of information originates from the fertile mind of White himself, and the chunky textures he churns out from his vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano.
White is an expert colorist, and he blended three additional elements into the riveting weekend concert: spoken word samples from African-American poetry icon Amiri Baraka; chromatic exploration from L.A./Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker; and the stunning vocal expertise of Rebecca Jade, who really knocked it out of the park with her portion of the program.
White began with spacey, tremolo-heavy harmonies as the first tape of Baraka intoned across the sonic curtain. Ever so slowly, a deep groove emerged from the McKinneys as Parker and White steered the conversation into sublime dynamic contours and intuitive transfer of ideas. White can dig into super lyrical territory on any instrument and just as quickly weave a dense rhythmic swath of thick, distorted clusters.
Parker began the second piece as a long, polytonal sonata, with White providing all the appropriate backgrounds before the bass and drums kicked in as Baraka's "Snake Eyes" riffed in the background. There was a sputtering, stuttering drama between ring-modulated piano chords, Stephen's Alphonso Johnson-esque burbling pocket and Greg's crackling snare drum that was as lethal as a viper's strike.
Over a highly amorphous groove, Jade ascended the stage to make a down payment on "You Are My Sunshine," and by the second chorus, she owned the tune outright. Soaring above the languid vamp, Jade combined a breathtaking purity with timbre choices of the devastatingly hip for a soulful essay I won't soon forget.
The band continued with a piece that featured a distorted Parker caterwaul of grungy intervals and an incredibly hip bass solo from Stephen that blended the thumb-slaps of Larry Graham with the Spanish strumming of the late Jimmy Garrison.
Jade rejoined the group for a harmonically minimalist take on Duke Ellington's "Solitude," with everyone feeling their own way through the tune. Once again, she nailed it with songbird acuity and emotional honesty. Many folks in the audience stood up right then in a totally spontaneous reaction to one of the best nights of music-making I've seen in a long, long time.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.