Playing "free," unscripted music can represent the ultimate challenge to improvising musicians. Without benefit of charts or an identifiable structure, many players run dry on ideas or lean too heavily on cliche, a few of the many reasons that this particular corner of the art form we call jazz is often overlooked.
But there is something magical that happens when improvising masters dedicate themselves to the principal of listening to each other at the virtuoso level.
On a sweltering September night, four such masters convened inside the rustic art space Bread & Salt for a rousing exchange of coruscating dialog that managed to sandblast the rafters even in the quiet moments. Drummer Nathan Hubbard’s mallets evoked a kind of spooky suspension as Peter Kuhn’s alto saxophone and Dan Clucas’s cornet set to fluttering above the manic pedaling of Kyle Motl’s bass. Clucas has a fat, clarion-call penchant for melodic embroidery, offset well by Kuhn’s sense of lurching choreography, especially evident when he switched to tenor saxophone, where he tended to toggle between a strangled vibrato and a honeyed purr. Young Motl seemed to be everywhere at once -- channeling the alacrity of Gary Peacock at one extreme with the violent sawing of William Parker on the other. And Hubbard kept the tension at a constant boil with brutal, semi-tribal rhythms.
Motl opened the second piece with ghostly overtones and rigorous strumming over the stop/start drama of Hubbard’s barrage, while Clucas intoned folkish melodies on an ethnic flute as Kuhn tended to a partially dismembered clarinet, sounding like a cross between Pee-Wee Russell and the Klezmer masters. By the time Clucas re-entered the fray with mocking plunder-mute caterwaul, the temperature inside the no-frills warehouse was inching very close indeed to the point at which one looks for a window to break to encourage a more humane sense of airflow.
Somehow both the windows and the concentration of the audience remained unbroken, however, and when Hubbard began the next piece by dragging strings of chopped up cymbals across the surface of his snare while activating a mallet in the other hand that concentration was rewarded by the spontaneous cascading of pure melody from the horns of Clucas and Kuhn, who referenced both the somber beauty of John Coltrane and the fractal geometry of Cecil Talyor in the course of one long conversation.
I’m usually pretty miserable in any kind of heat, so the fact that these cats managed to capture and maintain my attention over the course of one long set says a lot about the quality of Dependent Origination and the music they make.
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.