San Diego’s eclectic percussion master/composer Nathan Hubbard last graced the stage of the KSDS Jazz Live concert series nearly 14 years ago, and to say I was curious as to his performance strategy this time around (Tuesday, July 7) represents a considerable understatement.
I wasn’t disappointed -- even though Hubbard chose to downplay his formidable prowess as a monster free jazz drummer -- because by choosing to focus on his compositions, he managed to showcase a band of eight plus three guests, making for a night of joyful collaboration.
Hubbard opened the evening with "Dead Pan," working with a quartet featuring Ed Kornhauser on acoustic piano, Arizona improviser Branson NeJame on electric piano and the thick, woody pulse of Jerome Salazar on double bass. The Monkish tune had a delightful flow, and both pianists exhibited different approaches to the theme, with NeJame opting for dense activity while Kornhauser followed with a more baroque virtuosity.
Continuing with the "dead" theme, (the concert was loosely based on Hubbard’s campfire-murder-ballad idea), next up was "Dead Slant," which introduced vocalist Molly Whittaker and the additional bassist Harley Magsino into the mix. Whittaker went for a bluesy growl, belting out the lyric over the malleted swell of cymbals before yielding to the spoken word of Shannon Perkins.
There was a voodoo feel to "On the Rack Again," which swirled in a dark, spooky pool, and a German-cabaret vibe to "Scarecrow," which capitalized on the sure pitch and tight vibrato of Whittaker, while Kornhauser did his best to transform the house grand into a barrelhouse upright.
Woodwind master Ellen Weller came out for "Untitled Ballad," swooping and soaring in concert with the vocals and launching a mysterious soprano saxophone solo that brimmed with crackled observation and bruised emotions, followed by Magsino’s dark pizzicato and rubbery double-stops.
Weller remained for "Shut Off Valve," switching to flute and concentrating on breathy growls and hissing multiphonics while NeJame laid down a thick, churning solo in a rhythmic mode not unlike the late Joe Zawinul.
Hubbard called pianist Reka Parker to spell Kornhauser and invited vocalist Nina Deering to participate in "Walled Garden," built from the ground up by his shimmering cymbals and soft percussive clicks. Deering's pitch was also pleasantly centered, but her voice had a lighter, more ethereal touch and served as an interesting contrast to Whittaker's harder delivery, while Parker's piano cascaded with tasteful velocity.
For the finale "Song of the Seven Hearts," KSDS radio-personality Claudia Russell made a surprise appearance, intoning the lines of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca to dramatic effect and capping off a night of poetic conversations.
Hubbard is one of San Diego’s best-kept secrets, even after winning Best Jazz CD award at the 2014 SDMA ceremony. Let's hope he doesn’t wait another 14 years to return to the Jazz Live series.
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.