Cornetist and composer Kirk Knuffke is one of modern jazz’s most skilled navigators of the divide between inside and outside, freedom and swing. On Arms & Hands, to be released [date], he assembles the ideal trio to bridge that divide. Joined by bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bill Goodwin, along with special guests Brian Drye (trombone), Daniel Carter (alto saxophone), and Jeff Lederer (soprano/tenor saxophone), Knuffke creates a set of music that is both engaging and inventive.
The pairing of veterans Helias and Goodwin would seem at first glance to be a stylistic mismatch. Helias is best known for his with jazz experimentalists like Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Marilyn Crispell, and Gerry Hemingway, his band BassDrumBone with Hemingway and Ray Anderson, and his trio Open Loose with Tony Malaby and Tom Rainey. Goodwin, on the other hand, is recognized as a premiere straight-ahead drummer, through his decades-long relationship with saxophonist Phil Woods and credits that include such giants as Bill Evans, Tony Bennett, Dexter Gordon, Jim Hall, Gary Burton, and Art Pepper.
The idea for the trio came to Knuffke after stumbling across a video of Goodwin playing with Art Pepper on a vintage TV broadcast. He contacted the drummer and accepted an invitation to play at his long-running Thursday night gig at the Deer Head Inn in Pennsylvania’s scenic Delaware Water Gap, where the two hit it off. Afterwards, Goodwin professed his love for the music of Ornette Coleman and drafted Knuffke for the Ornette, a band dedicated to playing Coleman’s music.
Knuffke was at the same time a member of Helias’ quartet along with saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Mark Ferber. He was also aware of Helias’ work with Coleman’s bandmates Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, so decided to get them together for the first time in their careers. “Working in both their bands, it occurred to me that they really needed to play together,” Knuffke says. “I thought it would be a really interesting trio – and it definitely was.”
The evidence is irrefutable on Arms & Hands, which is a showcase for the immense creativity of all three musicians. Knuffke intentionally wrote compositions that took advantage of Goodwin’s gift for groove and swing while remaining open enough to allow the improvisations to wander however far afield the moment might call for. “I wanted to have music that was in the pocket, really funky or swinging, but was also really free harmonically and form-wise could go in any direction,” he explains. “We can really shift the tempos and grooves around, but it always feels really good.”