Free and structured improvisation by expert proponents of both disciplines were the order of the night on Feb. 25, when UCSD’s Loft featured knockout performances by the Kirk Knuffke Trio and Adam Rudolph’s GO: Organic Orchestra.
Cornet master Knuffke’s trio opened the show, with Rudolph on multiple hand drums and the ever-monstrous bass of Mark Dresser, who led off with ripe, languid tones peppered with double-glissandi as Knuffke’s free-melodic musings explored half-valve fluttering and squeezed vibrato. There was a deep blues/ swing aesthetic at the core of their journey -- without any overt references to either tradition.
During a quiet moment, Rudolph made his entrance on an ethnic flute, eking out willowy pentatonic melodies over Dresser’s pedal-tone bass and Knuffke’s strangled cries. Out of nowhere, Dresser began a furious, loping walk, triggering Rudolph’s five-drum assault which led to an intense conga solo. Knuffke seemed to navigate a course between the delicate structures of a Don Cherry and the more overt audacity of Lester Bowie. Dresser’s solo had a violent undercurrent, from strummed triplets to windmill slaps at the strings that bordered on "enhanced interrogation techniques."
After a brief intermission, Rudolph came back to the stage, this time as a composer/conductor, leading a large ensemble comprised of UCSD faculty like Dresser, saxophonist David Borgo, trumpeter Stephanie Richards and a slew of talented students.
Rudolph’s music utilizes unconventional notation and a highly personal system of conducting to generate music that evolves in the moment with an emphasis on group and individual improvisation. Rudolph signaled the horn section of Borgo, Richards, Zach Chase, Connor Hughes and Felipe Rossi to stir up clouds of dissonant harmony, adding the three-bass choir of Dresser, Tommy Babin and Kyle Motl into the mix with a potent blend of bowed and plucked ideas. Borgo snuck in a screaming solo followed by a startling Richards essay. Anders Eskildson’s piano was featured early on to good effect, and Joshua Charney’s electric keyboard had a dramatic entrance later on a tune that seemed to marry Coltrane's "Africa Brass" with Cecil Taylor's "Conquistador."
There was an ever-churning groove present on most of the experiments, with vital contributions from four percussionists, especially Putu Hiranmayena on Balinese gamelan drum and a tabla player whose name I did not catch.
I came away from this concert with a renewed appreciation for Dresser, Rudolph and Knuffke’s ability to generate instant music through the prism of close listening, and the myriad possibilities available through conducted improvisation. Plus, it looks like UCSD has really won the lottery with the addition of Stephanie Richards. I can’t wait to hear more from her.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.