Arkestral Maneuvers in the Dark

Joshua White Sextet at Dizzy's

San Diego piano virtuoso Joshua White continued his concert residency at Dizzy’s in Pacific Beach on April 16 with a special, completely improvised performance by a sextet featuring Stephanie Richards on trumpet, Michael Dessen on trombone, Ellen Weller on reeds, Mark Dresser on double-bass and Kjell Nordeson on drums.

White assembled the crew in the center of the room, surrounded by the audience at all points, and, for a really unique touch, the entire concert was performed in the dark. The first improvisation began with just the sound of White and Dresser alone, exchanging soft microgestures that expanded when Richards joined by pressing the bell of her trumpet into a snare drum head for spooky vibrational textures. Nearly 10 minutes elapsed before Nordeson, Dessen and Weller fully integrated into the active ensemble -- but the ecstatic balance of give-and-take remained; there was no rush into a squall, which is often de rigueur in such situations. Instead, silence itself toggled against the soft rustle of air through the columns of the horns, often orchestrated by the soliloquy of rattles and clicks from Nordeson. White re-emerged, taking the opportunity to shape the direction through example, churning a solo that exploited blistering kinetic energy and engendering a group wail suggestive of free Dixieland or the primal engine of Duke Ellington's 1927 "jungle-orchestra." Everyone got a showcase, including Weller's hissing, multiphonic flute, the bi-tonal audacity of Dresser's bass, the chortling roar of Dessen's 'bone and the buzzing hysteria of Richards' approach to the trumpet. Weller and Dessen advanced into the far corners of the room, locking horns in a braying howl that reminded me of the soundtrack to "Never Cry Wolf."

At periodic intervals, White would introduce a musical figure that would drastically redirect the energy of the room -- usually combining waves of dissonance with jagged and splintered rhythmic pulses -- and the degree with which he infused each moment with his own personality was nothing short of breathtaking. Weller continued in spirit with a split-toned essay on the Chinese hulusi, a drone-flute made from bamboo and gourds, followed by Richards, who encased the bell of her horn with aluminum foil -- the better to extract minute overtones and sensual screeches.

White began the second piece with long, knotted strands of jumbled harmonies, aided initially only by Nordeson's volatile bass drum and the lonely, existential wail of Dessen -- although Dresser's two-handed tapping and the inherent contrary motion it suggested were close behind. Suddenly the pianist sprang into action, exploding in a fit of information that sounded like Cecil Taylor channeling Shakespeare. Eventually, the horns returned, with long tones from odd angles -- underpinned by Dresser’s groaning arco -- winding down from gale force to whisper, as the remnants of the struggle receded into memory.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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