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Kirk Knuffke & Ted Brown - Pound Cake

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Artist: Kirk Knuffke & Ted Brown

Album: Pound Cake

Label: Steeplechase

Review date: Nov. 26, 2012

Those familiar with the principal players on this disc won’t require much persuasion in recognizing the artistic worth in their productive union. For others not acquainted with the co-leads, Pound Cake is a trip worth taking in the ways it subverts conventional wisdom regarding stylistic compatibility amongst improvisers. Thirty-something cornetist Kirk Knuffke remains a prolific participant in the Brooklyn-based creative music community. Tenorist Ted Brown is in his 60s, still going strong, and an alumnus of the Tristano School. The pair might appear an unlikely match on paper, but thanks to the magic of social networking and Knuffke’s friendly and persistent facilitation, this session came to fortuitous fruition. Brown balked amicably at an initial plan to play pieces from the folders of Ornette Coleman and Carla Bley and instead the ensemble opted to follow a songbook closer in line with the saxophonist’s pedigree.

Knuffke first became familiar with Brown through The Sound of Surprise, the saxophonist’s 1999 reunion album with Lee Konitz, itself recorded nearly 15 years after Brown’s second retirement from active gigging. Disparities in eras and backgrounds between the co-leaders are erased from the outset, with Knuffke blending right into Brown’s time-honored comfort zone of Lennie Tristano-style melodic extrapolations and re-inventions. Bassist John Hebert and drummer Matt Wilson jibe as a responsive rhythm team, with Wilson largely avoiding his occasional propensity for blunt accenting in favor of pleasingly wide dynamics on brushes and sticks. Hebert generates thick and juicy string articulations that build from an expansive elasticity, particularly in his knuckle-popping solo statements (of which there are more than a few). Both men participate aggressively while leaving plenty of time and space for the horns to fence and frolic.

Most of the tracks are retoolings of standards in the customary Tristano fashion, with fresh melodies grafted to familiar chord changes via gliding unison lines. Knuffke approaches the strategy like a pro, his freshly minted tunes fitting svelte hand in satin glove with Brown’s, some of which date back to the mid-1950s. Brown’s key tonal influence, Lester Young, gets a porkpie hat-tip by way of the title piece. The quartet also cracks a Tristano chestnut (“Lennie’s Pennies”) and takes the old nag “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” for a quick canter, the latter balanced on a supple bump-and-grind groove that enhances the insouciant repartee between the horns. Brown’s lithe and floating lines sound a shade pensive in several places, but Knuffke’s brass routinely soars, immediately bringing to mind the calmly mannered ingenuity of Ruby Braff in the seemingly effortless way he voices even the most serpentine line.

By Derek Taylor

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