The Is

Black Hat Records

Three young guys out to make a mark for themselves in improvised music, the CKW Trio (Alex Kelly, cello/bouzouki; Michael Cooke, reeds, flute, percussion; Andrew Wilshusen, percussion, trap kit) try on various suits of clothing here from the cultural closet (serialism, 'cell' structure, Eastern European folk forms, mathematical structures, ethnicism, etc.). To their credit, anything the band chooses to do fits pretty well, so once they decide on a direction they'll be difficult to stop.

A certain freshness comes from the instrumentation itself: Alex Kelly's cello is often plucked like your standard bass, giving CKW a surface 'sax trio' ambience. Those go all the way back to Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard, obviously, but the cello's higher voice tone capability (as opposed to the bass') lends the music more of a 'changeling' air. Sometimes it doesn't matter how 'out of the box' the bassist plays; if you hear a bass you make certain assumptions. It's a given. It's not the bass player's fault, it's the listener's. Like a few issues of JAZZ NOW ago when I reviewed Prestige Music's THE BEST OF ERIC DOLPHY and was stunned to hear George Duvivier, who I shamefacedly admit I categorized back there with Paul Chambers and his generation, taking even Dolphy for a ride... so don't you make my mistake. Kelly's cello is all over the place like Tony Williams's drums used to be on his first Blue Note recording LIFE TIME. During "Iram," a minor outrage loosely based on Middle Eastern themes, Kelly flips out and evenly spreads his hoodoo on every level of the piece. A certain mystical air here pervades, composer Wilshusen sticking to the basics and Cooke tootling a sketchy bassoon figure. More of an air of saffron can be whiffed in track 4, the name of which I can't give you because it's from an ancient Hindi manuscript found in India which nobody's been able to translate. Cooke leaps and spirals a flute bit to Wilshusen's agile tablas and Kelly's saz-like bouzouki. Good fun, a bit 'Incredible String Band' but they've only recently got back together and won't be touring the USA anyhow. Shame. Cooke is very accomplished, now and again recalling Ivo Perelman on his many saxophones, but Cooke's command of various world forms well outstrips Perelman's, that I can hear.

The first piece on THE IS, "Mondrian en Amerique," attempts to regiment itself in sound in as 'geometric' a fashion as Mondrian's boxy depictions of line and parallelogram do, but I wonder if a trio is the right size band to try something of this sort. One may need more voices to bring it off. The overlapping instruments, when they do, here, smack more to my ear of classic serialism as practiced by Varese. I hear idiomatic structure, but it is often a case of one motif or statement following another, often in response to whatever has just been played. So not exactly, but. Maybe with a larger band this track wouldn't sound so linear.

Elsewhere, you'll get a big laugh out of the circusy klezmer-based "R'izhii," the fractured blues that explodes and recombines somewhat different ("Alex In Wonderland"), and a circular-structured tune with an Anthony Braxtonesque name (you know the drill) that swings effortlessly.

In that last, Cooke slyly quotes "My One and Only Love" despite the quantum-undulating field of notes being played around him by Kelly and Wilshusen (whose more melodic attempts on the trap kit here also delight). No, I doubt that this indicates any belief that experimental music, as the Old Guard used to say before I stopped listening to them (no names will be mentioned), "would swing if it only were played right" -- to paraphrase my 13-year-old daughter: excuse me, could we define 'right'? -- I think it's a challenge that CKW wanted to try and not unlike bassist Dom Duval's similar attempts, hit it dead on.

Still more goodies abound here, like the wintry bassoon vehicle "4+#11m6m7" or the more straight improv "Spirits," but it's like I sad before. CKW clearly can go anywhere they like after this. Or they can go everywhere at once. Hard to book that trip on Amtrak, but it's doable. Try this; it's a humorous and accomplished journey into the not-too distant present. Music that, as the title says, simply 'is.'

by Kenneth Egbert

New Sounds - February 2005

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