Pianist Joshua White continued his monthly concert residency at Dizzy’s in Pacific Beach on Sept. 17 with a trio performance involving Dean Hulett on contrabass and Los Angeles percussionist Dan Schnelle on drums.
The original idea for the promotion of this gig (which was booked many months in advance) was, “Joshua White plays all new compositions.” Yet, there did not appear to be a scrap of manuscript paper in sight, and no one brought a music stand -- a curious canard, perhaps.
That feeling of mystery intensified as the trio began their first selection. Schnelle literally kicked it off with several soft pulses from his bass drum, as Hulett responded with light pulls on the bow and White countered with unsettled tinkling. A sudden shift into countable time coincided with a singable theme that careened from lilting modality into brief bursts of Afro-Caribbean groove.
It was seamless, and it must have been the result of considerable preparation, despite the lack of a visible lead sheet (half of me argued). That conviction was unfounded. In a sense, White both delivered on his original promise of “all new compositions” while simultaneously overruling it in favor of fully embracing the possibilities inherent in the moment, trusting the deep listening capacities of his associates to create something out of nothing.
The second improvisation employed a simple vamp punctuated by the undulating martial cadences of Schnelle, who is rapidly becoming one of the finest and most creative drummers on the West Coast. The tune had an enigmatic feel, which allowed White the freedom of toggling from gospel fervor to pastel harmonies in the blink of an eye.
Schnelle began the third improvisation alone, using rhythms as a communicative device, as each individual drum seemed to comprise a thread in a beat-woven tapestry. White and Hulett entered together, both hammering a single note in shifting layers as the plot thickened into a dense polyrhythmic stew. Hulett’s unamplified bass had a sound woody enough to give you splinters, and as the tune morphed into a distinctly new theme, White’s brutal clusters and atonal velocity raised the stakes on the “controlled abandon” principal exponentially -- eventually ricocheting back to Hulett, who dug in with a supremely bluesy exposition that hung in the air.
A new improvisation brought out a serious groove, powered by Schnelle’s pinpoint ride cymbal pings and the relentless walk of Hulett, allowing White to bully the mounting waves of tension into a corner where they had to come out swinging.
It was an amazing night of music only made possible through the virtuosic listening abilities of the principals and a complete commitment to follow the music where it led.
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.