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Monday, November 28, 2022

Kirk Knuffke - flexing the tradition

 By Stef Gijssels

New York cornetist Kirk Knuffke has a warm gentle tone on his horn, even in the most free and improvised formats. His sound is deeply rooted in tradition, as we will see on the albums on review here, while at the same time fully at home in improvised settings. Some of his music would not match the profile of our blog because it is too mainstream, but today we will make an exception, and show several sides of this versatile musician. Regardless of the subgenre, his music is always vulnerable, with emotions laid bare for everyone to hear and share. There are no gimmicks, no tricks, no false wizardry, no playing for the gallery, no showing off, no electronics, no dubs ... the energy is all invested in sensitive beauty, authentic and warm and welcoming. 

Kirk Knuffke & Michael Bisio - For You I Don't Want To Go (NoBusiness, 2022)

On the first album, we are treated by Kirk Knuffke on cornet and Mike Bisio to a 36 minute long improvisation, "For You I Don't Want To Go/ Sea Wamp", that progresses slowly, in a calm and meditative way, and as I wrote some years ago, Knuffke seems to relish duo performances, which allow for a more intimate and intense kind of interaction, balanced and balancing, giving space, listening and joining again, with careful and sensitive shifts in the sound, in the dynamics, even if they stay within the same range, that is never loud nor fast, as if the nature of music is to make the calm sounds resonate with more clarity if carefully delivered and allowed to merge with the other instrument. 

In the absence of structure, theme and rhythm, inventiveness, in-the-moment creativity and ideas drive the music forward: both artists use the core techniques of their instruments, plucked or bowed, muted or not, giving the music a voice of spontaneous authenticity, freedom and enjoyment of the here and now. Both artists are creative enough to make the long piece full of variation and changes, sudden thematic ideas, unexpected rhythmic bass lines, offering the listener a natural flow that can only be enjoyed. 

There's nothing boundary-breaking, just two artists at the top of their skills, who love the freedom of jazz, and who demonstrate what sincerity and selflessness sound like.

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Kirk Knuffke Trio - Gravity Without Airs (TAO Forms, 2022)

The second album brings the cornetist in the company of Michael Bisio on bass and Matt Shipp on piano. Of the fourteen tracks of this double LP, six were composed by Knuffke, the other ones are improvisations by the trio. 

The title captures the music well: "Gravity without Airs" refers to a line in Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD), a description which indeed fits the sound. The music is slow, subdued, never loud, never violent, never fast ... it moves, progresses and develops with dignity, with respect, with seriousness, but without having the connotations of self-importance or weight. Paradoxically, and possibly because of the chamber jazz line-up, the overall sound is light, floating unanchored forward. 

Bisio and Knuffke sense each other blindly, which is no surprise if you check all their collaborations of the last seven years, and I think this is a first collaboration with Shipp - at least on record - and it works remarkably well. Shipp has the same musical sensitivity as the two other musicians: gentle, measured, authentic and open-minded. 

Mainstream fans might find the music at times too open-ended, while free jazz purists may find it too gentle and not adventurous enough, and that's good. 

It's cold outside and raining hard. There is no need for adventure now. You're welcome to come inside, to warm your bones by the fire, and listen to this gentle and warm music. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Per Møllehøj, Kirk Knuffke, Thommy Andersson - 'S Wonderful (Stunt Records, 2022)

Let's go back in time now. Let's get to the blues of Louis Armstrong, WC Handy, Ellington, Gershwin. The listener is welcomed by WC Handy's "Beale Street Blues", with Per Møllehøj on guitar and Thommy Andersson on bass. The percussion-less trio gives the music an intimate closeness that works pefectly well with Møllehøj's precise and economic playing, Knuffke's warm tone, and Andersson's infectious bass. 

This all brings us back to the origin of jazz, but with today's technical quality - of the musicianship and the recording - that can only be appreciated. Knuffke and Møllehøj each penned some of the compositions, and these form a coherent match with the older pieces. 

There is no sought complexity, no real artistic agenda, and no intention to take the listener on any adventure: it's music all for the joy of the sound itself, the melody, the interaction, the mood and the deeply felt emotions. A tribute to the fathers of jazz, in a rendition that we will all enjoy. 

The centerpiece of the album is Gershwin's "'S Wonderful", a little more uptempo than the other pieces. 

Personally, I grew up with Louis Armstrong - my mother's favourite music - and as a kid one of my preferred pieces was the "Saint Louis Blues", which gets a great rendition here, with Knuffke singing the lyrics, and I truly admire his deep bluesy voice. 

If you're in a mainstream mood, or want to hear some great modern take at tradition, I'm sure you will enjoy this.