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Kirk Knuffke Trio - Gravity Without Airs (TAO Forms)

30 June 2022

Cornetist Kirk Knuffke has become a critical favorite as a sideman with Allison Miller, Ray Anderson, Charlie Hunter, Matt Wilson, Michael Bisio and more. He’s earning a reputation as a creative and savvy leader as well, usually in chordless trios. For Gravity Without Airs, his new double album, he continues in trio mode, but mixes it up, replacing drums with piano, and recruiting two frequent co-workers and mavericks in their own rights: bassist Bisio and pianist Matthew Shipp.

Given the reputations of Knuffke’s cohorts here, one might expect free jazz cacophony. And while there are plenty of spontaneous compositions here, everyone here keys in on the presence of melody, making even the more rollicking free improvisations accessible to the unacclimated. The bluesy “Stars Go Up,” the hard-bopping “Heal the Roses” and the circular “June Stretched” may have been made up as they went along, but these musicians are so sensitive to each other’s moves and so in tune with each other’s moods you’d never know it. The threesome travels more exploratory roads on “Time is Another River” and “Birds of Passage,” finding the kinks and wrinkles within their improvs and giving them meaty discussions, and go for moody atmospherics on “Paint Pale Silver” and “Shadows to Dance.” Knuffke and company also explore the ballad tradition in their own way on the gorgeous “Today For Today” and “Between Today and May.”

In a way, Knuffke and friends put themselves at a disadvantage by putting the title track in the pole position. “Gravity Without Airs” rolls and tumbles on the strength of Shipp and Bisio’s dynamic rhythms, as Shipp finds a midpoint between avant-garde classical fingerings and old-fashioned barrelhouse piano, and Bisio keeps to the high notes for a repetitive pattern. Thus supported, Knuffke simply soars, utilizing a bluesy tone that pays tribute both to primary inspiration Don Cherry and cornet/jazz innovator Louis Armstrong. It’s truly a tour de force. While that tune may be the unintentional peak, it’s hardly the only track of substance, and fans of sympatico spontaneity will find much to embrace on Gravity Without Airs.