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.”
Opener “Safety Shoes” sets the tone with its deceptively simple two-chord riff, which marks the first appearance of Brian Drye. The trombonist was one of the first musicians that Knuffke met after moving to New York City in 2005 and has remained one of his closest collaborators ever since. They’ve performed dozens of duo concerts and worked together in each other’s bands as well as bands led by Andrew D’Angelo, Andy Biskin, and others. “And people say we look like brothers,” Knuffke adds.
“Safety Shoes” is one of three pieces inspired by Working, Chicago journalist Studs Terkel’s landmark oral history of working class Americans. The book also prompted Knuffke to compose “Elevator,” with its off-kilter, up-and-down unpredictability; and “Bonderizer,” which reflects the titular machine in its unwieldy mechanical lurch.
Other musicians, both influences and peers, were also a rich source of inspiration for the music on Arms & Hands. “Bright Light” was written for Daniel Carter, whose fertile improvisational imagination graces that song as well as “Atessa.” The late saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, a longtime member of the Cecil Taylor Unit, was on Knuffke’s mind when he wrote the frenetic “Root,” while Jim Pepper is the namesake of the slickly grooving “Pepper.” The tragic life of Goodwin’s former employer Art Pepper, meanwhile, inspired the equally chaotic “Use.” And “Chirp,” with Jeff Lederer on soprano, was penned in honor of Steve Lacy, a longtime influence whose work Knuffke explores in Josh Sinton’s one-of-a-kind tribute band Ideal Bread.
The album concludes with a jaunty rendition of country crooner Ernest Tubb’s “Thanks a Lot,” a song, which Knuffke discovered in his father’s record collection. “I’m a big fan of Lester Bowie and Sonny Rollins,” Knuffke says, “and their determination that no song is off limits. If you like the song, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”
Knuffke is a prolific composer and improviser who has worked with a host of incredible musicians including Roswell Rudd, William Parker, Uri Caine, Myra Melford, Allison Miller, Steve Swell, John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Billy Hart, Steven Bernstein, and Mary Halvorson. Internationally, he has played with ensembles at jazz festivals in Saalfeldan Austria, Willisau Switzerland, The North Sea Jazz festival in Holland, The Moers festival as well as festival dates in Canada, Mexico, Italy and France.
He is currently a member of the Matt Wilson Quartet, which recently released a new CD in collaboration with keyboardist John Medeski. Knuffke is also a member of the Mark Helias Quartet, the Andrew D’Angelo Big Band, Josh Roseman’s Extended Constellations, Kenny Wollesen’s Wollesonic, and Allison Miller’s Boom tic Boom. Knuffke’s leader debut, Big Wig, was released by Clean Feed in 2008, followed by the trio recordings Chew Your Food and Amnesia Brown and the quartet album Chorale. He has also recorded several duo CDs with pianist Jesse Stacken and one with percussionist Mike Pride, and co-led the collaborative trio Sifter with Mary Halvorson and Matt Wilson and a quartet with saxophonist Ted Brown.