Mallets and Sticks: Kjell Nordeson at UCSD

Nordeson is a master percussionist.

An evening of solo percussion might seem daunting to some, but after witnessing the mastery of Kjell Nordeson’s solo show at UCSD on May 22, I’m a believer.

Nordeson’s performance combined mallets and sticks -- powering a wide array of pitched and unpitched instruments -- covering classical music, contemporary-classical music, free-improvisation and prerecorded segues.

I’m pretty sure that Nordeson began with "Rebounds B," by Iannis Xenakis, a challenging piece for vibraphone and tuned bells that featured clanging intervals, almost comic velocity and eerie clusters. Later, he turned to a hybrid drum kit consisting of bongos, conga and tom-toms for a wicked display of stick-pressure dynamics.

Like a master juggler, Nordeson has the ability to alter the force in his hands to accommodate playing instruments of wildly differing transient qualities and make them all blend into a unified whole. He took on Bach’s "Prelude in Eb Minor" with the vibraphone’s tremolo motor fully engaged -- affecting a gauzy, reverberant cloud.

Especially gratifying were Nordeson’s moments at the drum kit: He has developed a singular voice on the instrument that combines the kinetic energy of a Sunny Murray with his own applications of small cymbals and a tiny bongo set planted on his snare and floor tom. He even picked up an acoustic guitar, sat on a stool and crooned "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." It was inspiring to see that his musicality burned brightly even while playing an instrument on which his technique was seriously limited.

The concert's pacing was nothing short of brilliant. Nordeson filled the room with an amazing array of music and stopped while the audience was fully engaged and ready for much more. A wise decision and one more reason this concert was one of the best I’ve experienced in many years.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

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