By Nick Metzger
This unassuming album with a funny looking cartoon cat on its cover is a real monster. From what I gathered, Baltimore drummer Mike Kuhl had a regular pre-pandemic Tuesday gig with his trio (with bassist Jeff Reed and guitarist John Lee though I’ve also seen Ballou listed as a member as well) at a spot called Bertha’s Mussels. He took the opportunity one Tuesday in 2018 to play there with this quartet (Dave Ballou on trumpet, Luke Stewart on bass, John Dierker on reeds), all local players Kuhl had wanted to get together in a group, which he dubbed KRAFT. They must have made an impression, as the group was subsequently invited to live stream from An Die Musik in February of 2021. The set ended up being so good that Stewart offered to master it and OOYH has released the results in-full as a part of its digital-only Untamed series, and holy cow (cat?!) I’m glad they did. KRAFT is heavy on chemistry and light on filler, and on their debut they deliver animated and commiserate formations of sound that span a wide range of dynamics and intensities.
The first piece “Ageless One” is a behemoth that, like many free improvisational efforts, kicks off the album with probing appendages of cross-talk as the quartet looks to establish some traction. Once the pieces really start falling into place, Dierker’s reeds and Ballou’s brass alternately serve up chatty dialogues and streaks of mad squawking ramble against the surging rumble and/or steady thud of Stewart and Kuhl’s rhythm section. On “Scoop the Moon” the horns get into a tussle of murmurs and slurred passages, the tangles of percussion coming from bells, traps, and peripherals as Stewart lurks in the background masterfully teasing mumbled creaks and groans from his bass. “Stick and Move” bristles from the outset with its churning percussion, aggressive low end, and agitated negotiations. The piece develops a steady cadence about the meridian and Dierker lays down a long, burly progression of bluesy sentiments before Ballou returns and the tempo goes prickly again. The quartet plays slightly understated on “A Real Mensch”, an inquisitive short (relatively) that shows just how betrothed these men are with their communal vibrations. On the closer “Underneath” the band is venturesome but deliberate, taking care in the materialisation of their final notions.
In my opinion the reasons that this release works so well are the remarkable chops of the musicians, their steadfast enthusiasm for the task at hand, and the aforementioned chemistry. This is a wonderful quartet and there are ample scenes within to prove my point, not once do you hear an individual going off on their own or being inattentive, rather they are continuously engaged and display an extraordinary level of musicianship and camaraderie. KRAFT delivers an embarrassment of controlled and tempered performances mixed with free sections and everything in-between. An excellent album of free improvisation from a quartet we hope to hear more from. Excellent.
More music/information/interviews with KRAFT: