Free jazz -- or the so-called avant-garde -- is a rare commodity in San Diego, so the emergence of a new free-improvising ensemble represents a true signal for celebration in the creative-music community. On Nov. 12, the Nathan Hubbard Trio -- featuring veteran improviser Peter Kuhn on woodwinds, Hubbard on drums and the remarkable young virtuoso Kyle Motl on double-bass -- assembled at UC San Diego's the Loft for an evening of deep listening and "old school" improv, with an emphasis on the balance between controlled abandon and genuine conversation.
Everything was spontaneously conceived, but the opener had a deliberate purpose: Kuhn began "Low Down & Blue" as a meditation in honor of his mentor, Thich Nhat Hanh, the legendary Vietnamese Zen master who had just suffered a brain hemorrhage. Kuhn led the adventure on the huge, contra-alto clarinet with foghorn swirls over Motl's ponticello bowing and the skitterish meter of Hubbard's brushes. There were strange unisons on odd intervals in glacial confluence until Hubbard introduced a mallet-driven groove that spurred Kuhn into split-toned multiphonics rooted in deep emotion and the innovations of Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders.
Hubbard led off the second piece with multi-directional rhythms suggestive of Rashied Ali and Sunny Murray, and young Motl took up the cause with a treatise that rippled with velocity and brutal gesticulation. Now on alto saxophone, Kuhn intoned with sermon-like gravity as the music shifted focus between the three alchemists. Special notice must be made of Motl's rapid development as an improviser of the highest order. On one of the pieces, he unveiled an independent, two-handed "harp-harmonic" technique that was, frankly, unbelievable to watch and listen to. This is a guy to watch.
When Kuhn manned the tenor saxophone, the group launched into a three-way dynamic that investigated the entire 1960's aesthetic, finishing one other's thoughts and coursing through stripper swagger and hoarse existential screams -- eventually revealing an opportunity for Hubbard to surface with a feature that balanced the graceful with the spastic in a true demonstration of duality as a musical principal. I'm looking forward to witnessing the Hubbard Trio continue on their quest for surprise.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.