One of the pleasures of the year just ended was meeting and hearing cornetist Kirk Knuffke for the first time. This happened at a December 2012 concert for tenor saxophonist Ted Brown’s eighty-fifth birthday, but the pleasure of Kirk’s music has continued long after the concert ended — through his recording session with Ted, issued as POUND CAKE on Steeplechase Records.
On this CD, Kirk and Ted are joined by two other subtly eloquent players, string bassist John Hebert and drummer Matt Wilson. It is a spare but richly resonant quartet of equally musical voices in deep conversation. A number of the compositions are Ted’s — BLIMEY, DIG IT, JAZZ OF TWO CITIES, SLIPPIN’ AND SLIDIN’, FEATHER BED, JAZZ OF TWO CITIES, but they are heard afresh. Tristano’s LENNIES, two of Kirk’s originals, SWIVEL and ARRIVE, sit neatly next to the classic GEE, BABY, AIN’T I GOOD TO YOU? and the Lester Young blues which gives this CD its name (“pound cake,” in Lester’s slang, was your girlfriend).
It’s hard to describe the music, except to say that it dramatizes in sweet ways the continuum of improvised music of the last hundred years: at times I thought of Lester Young’s Keynote quartet with Sidney Catlett, then the early Mulligan quartet, all the way up to Ornette and Don Cherry. Seamless, personal, and flowing.
Good-natured music without being trivial or jokey: listening to the title track, I thought that these four players had managed to summon up Lester’s ebullience and sadness — parallel and simultaneous — without smudging either expression. I had already known how lyrical Ted was and is, but encountering the other players on this CD is a real pleasure. Matt Wilson now belongs to the expanding category of “modern” drummers who make beautiful sounds, who are incapable of being tedious or formulaic. Every touch of the stick or brush brings joy. John Hebert is both a powerful eloquent soloist and an old-fashioned string bassist in the great tradition who, like a swing Atlas, can hold the globe on his shoulders. But Kirk . . .ah, Mr.Knuffke! I have admired cornet players all my life: Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff first — sweet sound-painters. Kirk eschews the broad strokes that some other brass players love in favor of a sweet apparent indirection that is (whisper this) always on target. His notes seem like the dots in an impressionist painting; the listener wonders, “What does he have in mind? Where is he going?” and then, two minutes later, we hear that the sly Mr. Knuffke has created an entire world of sound for us while appearing to be simply ambling.
Here’s a sample of Kirk, Ted, Matt, and bassist Chris Lightcap from that wonderfully illuminating concert in December 2012:
DIG IT. I do; you will.
May your happiness increase.