Dave Ballou Gets Free

Three musicians came together for a night of free jazz at the Loft

UC San Diego's all-ages nightclub the Loft has become a virtual hotbed of free-jazz activity this quarter, with the latest example coming on April 27, when Baltimore trumpeter Dave Ballou rolled into town to spar with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Kjell Nordeson, two San Diego cats who are rapidly becoming the West Coast free-rhythm section.

It all began with a slow, cyclical exchange of ideas: asymmetric beats from Nordeson, dogged swirls of the bow from Dresser and the harmonically untethered, yet distinctly boppish trumpet. The trio created a sense of unity through independent stratagems, with each player charting his own course.

Nordeson's dynamic control is something to behold. Somehow he cultures softer textures from sticks than mallets, and his unusual setup of inverted cymbals atop a floor tom and miniature bongos on the snare required extreme mastery of the smallest details.

Occasionally, Dresser would steer the group into a staggered, loping groove with bluesy implications, deepening the pull of Ballou's fluttering strands of circular logic. But more often, the linear swing of the trumpeter achieved brilliance through a sort of contrast dynamic, tempered from the friction of push and pull.

There were rarely solos in the conventional sense, but at one point, Dresser conjured a hornet's nest -- the moan of a colossus and the wail of a piper all within 90 seconds of intricate bow manipulation. When Ballou led, the conversation often took on the fanfare expansiveness I associate with post-Ornette Don Cherry -- an extremely welcome concept to these ears.

Nordeson's solo feature seemed like a symphony of tightly controlled explosions, and the net effect was to draw Ballou into some of his most volatile improvising of the evening: carving piercing curlicues and shooting webs of melodic energy across the sonic curtain.

One could get spoiled by regular doses of such high-quality improvising.

 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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