Jazz Jackhammers at UCSD

Two very different trios graced the stage at UC San Diego’s Loft on June 4, providing the audience with three hours of music evenly divided between the mainstream and the exploratory.

The Danny Green Trio opened the show with intricate and highly arranged original music, and, if you like Chick Corea, Mr. Green’s aesthetic is sure to please. Melodic cascades are a Green trademark, and on the opening tune, "6:00 A.M," the precise interplay between Justin Grinnell’s percolating electric bass lines and Julien Cantelm’s soft percussion dovetailed tightly with the leader’s melodically driven improvisations. "2 Ways About It" leaned heavily on Cantelm’s always-tasteful forward motion and a harmonic structure that reminded me of Bobby Hebb’s classic, "Sunny."

Green pulled out some Vince Guaraldi tricks on "Song for Haley," a supersweet ballad, but for me, the high point of the set came on "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise," which swung and seemed more passionate than the other material.

The headline act, the Jeff Denson Trio with Joshua White on piano and Jon Arkin on drums, followed with a set culled from Denson’s latest record of spirituals and earlier material, and their set ratcheted into a passionate vista from the very first note -- which just happened to be a deep-toned bass soliloquy leading into "Down at the Cross."

At first the trio hewed close to the melody, but White soon inched his improvisation into the fringes, where his angular clusters opened up a free dialog. I had no idea that Denson could sing, but as White tinkled ruminative chords, the bassist stepped to the microphone and launched into "Autumn Song," with strong and limber voice. White waxed rhapsodic without a trace of saccharine, and Denson’s bass solo featured compelling melodic imperatives.

The insouciant bounce of "I’ll Fly Away" found White pounding the keys like a Pentecostal jackhammer over Denson’s singing whole-notes and the inspired parade feel of Arkin’s drums; by contrast, the devotional reverie of "What a Friend" had every audience member who had ever been in a church mouthing the lyrics. White’s solo spin was ripe with wild, kinetic energy -- swirling, violent fragments that eventually coalesced into Monk’s "Criss-Cross."

These solo spots from the pianist have evolved into breathtaking explorations over the past few years, and if there is a more exciting pianist on planet Earth at this moment, I’d love to hear him.

Denson also vocalized an inspired version of the classic "Blue Skies," featuring an explosive ostinato and a golden rhythmic pulse courtesy of Arkin’s ride cymbal articulation. Saxophonist Ian Tordella guested on Denson’s "A Thought That Lingers," which began with an episodic drum solo, traversed into some alto screams and landed on a visceral bass spot that maintained invention in multiple tempi and clarity in all registers.

"When the Saints" was so drastically retooled, it effectively became a different animal -- and White stretched and pulled whatever animal it became into a different species altogether, with effusive melodicism and daring metric alchemy.

Denson ended the concert with a solo bass exploration on "Amazing Grace," using the bow and harmonics for almost bagpipe-like effects, pizzicato slurs and vibrato to elicit the indigo sighs of a mellifluous leviathan.

Absolutely brilliant.

 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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