This review appears in the November 2013 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.
By David R. Adler
Cornet specialists aren’t in huge supply, but Kirk Knuffke stands out among this unique lot for his versatility and expressive depth. He’s explored Steve Lacy’s music with Ideal Bread and the Lennie Tristano legacy with Ted Brown. He’s offered a compelling take on the repertoire of Monk, Ellington and Mingus in duets with pianist Jesse Stacken. His sideman work with Matt Wilson, Jon Irabagon and others is vigorous and surefooted. Chorale, Knuffke’s fourth outing as a leader, finds him in a brilliant lineup with pianist Russ Lossing, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Hart. It’s striking that the nine original pieces all have one-word titles save for the closing “Good Good,” which playfully shifts from uptempo to half-time swing.
Striving for a balance of the written and the freely improvised, Knuffke opens with the former, a plaintive rubato invention called “Wingy.” Hart’s drumming is identifiable within the first minute and its appeal only grows from there, giving more tempo-based pieces such as “Kettle,” “Standing” and “School” a sense of dynamic flux and timbral oddity.
“Madly” revives the hovering feel of the opener but in a much freer context; it’s the longest piece of the set, moving through passages of near silence and ending with Lossing’s fiery unaccompanied piano. The transition from there to “Match” is pretty magical: Lossing is out for the first two minutes while Formanek states a steady bass line and Hart plays hypnotic tom-toms, moving to more jazz-like sticks and cymbals the very moment the piano comes in.
The blend of cornet, bowed bass and piano on the title track does in fact suggest a chorale. This bit of lyrical and offbeat chamber-jazz, rather unlike the album’s other material, yields to free rubato interplay and yet somehow preserves the feeling and direction of the opening statement. It’s the strongest evidence of the band’s profound intuitive connection.