"Big Wig" bagatellen review by Clifford Allen
Unassumingly ambitious is one way to characterize the debut disc on Clean Feed of trumpeter Kirk Knuffke’s quartet. Knuffke is a relative newcomer to New York, who has worked in the ensembles of Butch Morris and drummer Kenny Wolleson in addition to his own small groups. For his first leader date Knuffke’s joined by bassist Reuben Radding, drummer Jeff Davis and trombonist Brian Drye on twelve originals. The leader hails from Denver, Colorado and cut his teeth in bands around the state in recent years, while also studying with contemporary hardbop players like Ron Miles and Hugh Ragin. The music is deft freebop deployed with strength and facility, and for a pianoless quartet the instrumentation is rather unique.
There’s a poised fleetness to Knuffke’s lines that gives away expert music school training, and that’s not a slight – one need only to listen to players like Warren Gale or Kelly Rossum to know that what one does with “technique” in service of the music is key. Knuffke employs a range of the history of his instrument – hardboppers like Freddie, Lee and Woody as well as the scree of Don Ayler, not to mention a significant amount of steely heft. Though his assembly of phrases is very clean, his bravura is unequivocally democratic, always in support of Drye’s fat purrs and the tenuous push-pull of Radding and Davis.
The title track has a little bit of Rudd’s “Yankee No-How” in the head, dense singsong flurries in stop-time that open up into chortles and whinnies, a conversation of insects and horses atop glinting percussion and pliant thrum. It doesn’t hurt that Drye has that slushy tailgate down pat, brothel-ready in the closing “Truck” as well as throughout. Those bouncy heads are something that draws a line back several decades toward something not taught in the average music school – thematic material derived from Shepp, Rudd, Lacy and their kin. There’s actually a swinging of poles between tendencies of “New Thing” classicists and an opening up of those tendencies toward sonic exploration. But exploring space without tempo seems like a tool here rather than an ineffable outgrowth of the structure, a deliberate contrast to the lickety-split engine that keeps trying to rear in “Enough,” for example. Eventually, though, Knuffke will find a way to balance his ideas, and for that it’s worth keeping a finger on his player’s pulse.