Kirk Knuffke’s Time: The Story of Some of the Year’s Best Jazz


Jazz musicians still in their thirties and unbound by bebop ancestor worship, like the cornetist Kirk Knuffke and his loose circle of current and former Brooklynites (Mary Halvorson is the only one you’ve heard much about so far), don’t speak of playing standards anymore, even when that’s what they’re doing. They do “covers,” usually on concept albums or as entire concert programs. The material at hand might be Satie, Eighties pop, or a Methodist hymn — doesn’t matter, as long as the players fully immerse themselves in it. Jazz standards are a protected species, of course, and those by Monk and Ellington, in particular, still pass smoothly from generation to generation. But even when interpreting the canon, these intuitive postmodernists attempt to widen it — and to question how what’s already enshrined in it relates to them, instead of the other way around.

Knuffke’s series of (mostly) duet albums with the pianist Jesse Stacken, for the Danish label SteepleChase, is a case in point. “When I first came to New York [from his native Colorado] in 2005, my passion was free improvisation and the avant-garde,” he told me recently, speaking by phone from his fifth-floor Hell’s Kitchen walk-up. “But at home I was listening to as much Monk as anything else, and I wanted to play that music so I could investigate how it worked but wasn’t part of any jam session circle that regularly played Monk and wasn’t looking to be, either. Then when I met Jesse, he was practicing a lot of Monk, so we got together and recorded Monk along with a couple of Ellington things we both liked.”

That was 2008. Next came a Mingus retrospective; then a pair of releases largely given over to numbers by Albert Ayler, Steve Lacy, Misha Mengelberg, and other iconoclasts more celebrated as free improvisers than as composers; and then the recent Satie, a collection of piano studies opened up for improvisation and approached with a combination of lyric ecstasy and intellectual rigor (the proper way to take on the most eccentric of the Big Three fin-de-siècle French impressionist composers).

Knuffke’s new Cherryco is at once a continuation of the series and a departure. It, too, is on SteepleChase and entirely covers: five early Ornette Coleman tunes and seven by Don Cherry, Coleman’s original frontline partner. But instead of a pianist, Knuffke bounces off the veterans Jay Anderson on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums, both of whom are more open and quicker on the uptake than I remember them being in more conventional settings. Coleman’s tunes, following his model, are generally performed pianoless; Cherry’s too. But Cherryco also does without a saxophone, which puts the focus squarely on Cherry — and Knuffke. And while Knuffke’s encounters with Stacken provide insight into what to listen for on the numerous releases featuring his own compositions (the one I recommend starting with is 2015’s Arms and Hands), Cherryco is that much more revealing for saluting a fellow cornetist.

As Knuffke pointed out to me, that “pocket trumpet” Cherry is listed as playing on early recordings was actually a miniature cornet — though probably only another brass player could hear the difference. “The way the air moves through the cornet is more open and spilling out everywhere, which makes it easier for me to be dynamic and expressive. Bending notes around comes easier on cornet, where trumpet is more focused and direct.”

Except for a disappointing “Lonely Woman” missing the whoops and group tempo accelerations of Coleman’s original, the Coleman material is excellent, the Cherry nothing short of spectacular. If the album is reminiscent of anything at all, it’s not Coleman’s nor even Cherry’s own groups. It makes you yearn for something no one has ever heard: a phantom 1961 Cherry trio date for Atlantic with Henry Grimes and Billy Higgins, listed in discographies but never released and reportedly destroyed in a warehouse fire.

Coleman ultimately entered the canon on his own terms, but a case still needs to be made for Cherry, who was initially overshadowed by Coleman, then by the tenor saxophonists he partnered with, including Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ayler, and Archie Shepp (not to mention Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri), and is still often regarded as a Coleman satellite. Yet Cherry’s independent significance begins with his globetrotting from the mid-1960s on. He picked up string and percussion instruments and played world music or ethno-jazz before anyone thought to use either phrase; coached European improvisers into arriving at their own distinct styles of free jazz; and provided a ticket to the U.S. for Barbieri and Karl Berger. (No wonder that when Cherry’s music is performed these days, it’s typically by European ensembles focusing on his suites Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers.) Cherry’s darting solo style, glittering rather than fiery, nuanced and free of pyrotechnics, never figured to become one that younger brass players feel challenged to match, and never has.

On Cherryco, Knuffke does both Cherry and himself proud. Cherry’s alternative to running the changes was a subtle kind of chordal prestidigitation, chords vanishing back into their root melodies. “I feel that what musicians call ‘time’ is the most important element in jazz, because you think about all the different sounds and approaches the great players had, and the one thing that made them all great was their time,” Knuffke said, and this sort of thinking makes him a perfect fit for Cherry. He utilizes all of Cherry’s tricks and adds several nifty ones of his own, in part thanks to his greater technical prowess. (The first time I saw him live — with Ideal Bread, the Lacy tribute band he plays in with Josh Sinton — his straight posture and pinpoint breath control fooled me in thinking he was classically trained. Not so. His music education was catch as catch can: high school stage band, Chet Baker records, informal tutoring from Ron Miles in Denver and Butch Morris in New York.) Jazz musicians are forever playing one instrument and hearing a different one in their heads. In Knuffke’s case, it’s trombone. Those smears he achieves on Cherry’s Jamaican one-drop “Roland Alphonso” (named for the Skatalites’ original saxophonist), for example, might be the result of an effort to emulate the way “Roswell Rudd and Ray Anderson can push the horn until it starts to rattle and sound like it’s going to break apart.”

“Knuffke is no one’s idea of a jazz superstar,” began a gig blurb in the New Yorker last year. “But judging from numerous appearances over the past few years his name seems to be on the lips of some of the most engaged musicians in town.” No one’s idea but theirs — and mine, though has there really been a jazz superstar since Miles Davis? And what would one look like? Maybe the unsigned writer was blinded by Knuffke’s unassuming bandstand demeanor — or by his whiteness. Knuffke’s Bushwick beard and the skully he alternates with a trilby or fedora scream Brooklyn, even though he was priced out of the borough almost two years ago. You can think of today’s Brooklyn as an ad hoc avant-garde defined only by its eclecticism and its desire to put Morris, Lacy, and Henry Threadgill on a plane with Coltrane, Monk, and Miles. (The scene has a greater number of women players than is typically the norm for jazz, and this is its lone claim to diversity.) But superstar or not, Knuffke is Ambrose Akinmusire’s only equal among their generation’s brass players. He’s worth hearing wherever he turns up, but especially on Cherryco, the best new jazz album I’ve heard so far this year.