The Return of Joshua White

White's trio listens and enchants with superior improvisation

Piano virtuoso Joshua White returned from a month-long European tour with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa to perform his first show at the new location of Dizzy’s, now working out of the Musicians' Association on Morena Boulevard.

Accompanying Mr. White on this occasion were double-bassist Dean Hulett and, down from Los Angeles, Dan Schnelle on drums. White began the concert -- as he often does -- with soft, tinkling arpeggios that enticed the audience to lean forward and catch every nuance while Hulett and Schnelle filled the interstitial spaces with appropriate responses as the piano toggled between nagging repetitions and long strands of uninterrupted melody.

Short, stabbing chords triggered a plum ostinato and hissing hi-hat. Everyone dropped out to make way for a brilliant cadenza that didn’t just flirt with atonality but embraced the concept with joyful commitment. Then, it was Hulett alone, spinning a tale on his unamplified bass that allowed each note to ring, sing and decay naturally, followed by Schnelle, who built his statement from light taps on his index finger.

Segueing into the next piece -- which sprang from the piano with tangled counterpoint like an angry Hydra before dialing down suddenly -- White again yielded to Schnelle, who began his solo by dragging a string of shells across the head of his snare drum before adding kick and hi-hat to assemble a raw swing decree. Schnelle has quietly taken his game to the next level, becoming a singular voice in the Southern California improvising community.

Hulett took the melodic lead while White strummed the inside of the piano. Gears shifted again, and the trio took on the trance-like nature of Keith Jarrett’s work with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden. Like almost every other piece this evening, this one was completely improvised, but I had a very clear impression that it might have had something to do with the situation in Standing Rock.

White began his deconstruction of Sonny Rollin’s "Oleo" as a solo tour-de-force, channeling Jaki Byard and Horace Tapscott into a kaleidoscopic vision of irresistible motion that was strong enough to jar planets out of their orbit. It inspired equally dynamic statements from Hulett and Schnelle.

Following up such gleeful mayhem with a pensive waltz proved how far White has progressed as a presenter. Contemplative chords rang into the night while Hulett used the opportunity to carve voluptuous arcs of velocity. Schnelle answered with the soft sound of brushes on cymbals before switching to sticks and changing the meter as the band found a groove hipper than Vince Guaraldi on steroids.

Even though the concert was almost completely improvised, everything had the flow and logic of painstaking composition. It takes real listening to pull that off.

These guys are real listeners.

 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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