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Before & After with Kirk Knuffke

The cornetist and trumpeter digs Don Cherry, Ornette, Butch Morris, Wynton and more

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Kirk Knuffke
Kirk Knuffke (photo: Madeleine Ventrice-Knuffke)

A Venn diagram of Kirk Knuffke’s musical production would be complicated to decipher. Born and raised in Colorado, mentored by the late Ron Miles, Knuffke moved to New York in 2005 and quickly infiltrated the scene. During the ensuing 17 years, the 42-year-old cornetist/trumpeter—whose NYC mentors include Ornette Coleman, Butch Morris, and Wynton Marsalis—has brought his pellucid, full-bodied tone, melodic deftness, and conceptual acumen to two dozen or so albums as leader and collaborator, plus another few dozen as a sideman, maneuvering between different cliques whose stylistic affinities might not otherwise intersect.

Consider Knuffke’s latest, Gravity Without Airs (TAO Forms), on which he triologues with bassist Michael Bisio, a longstanding partner, and pianist Matthew Shipp, whom Knuffke previously knew only by reputation. After an initial encounter in a trio led by saxophonist Stephen Gauci, they convened for Bisio’s quartet album Accortet (Relative Pitch) and the duo album Row for William O. (Relative Pitch), then in Bisio’s string trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and with multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee.

“Michael has played forever with Matthew, and I’m a lifelong fan, so we always intended for the three of us to meet,” Knuffke said in mid-July via Zoom from Sweden, midway through a Scandinavian sojourn. “This trio record was inevitable, in a way. We see how it all starts colliding.”

Knuffke spoke from the farmhouse of the popular Swedish singer Josefine Cronholm, down the road from another farmhouse occupied by Danish bassist Thommy Andersson. “There’s nothing else around,” he said, evoking a pastoral Ingmar Bergman mise en scène. “The house is exactly as it was 200 years ago except for electricity and internet.” The next day, the Cronholm/Knuffke/Andersson trio were off to Denmark to play the Odense Jazz Festival. Then Knuffke would teach for a week at jazz camp in Engelsholm Castle before returning to New York. Earlier in the month at the massive Copenhagen Jazz Festival, he’d played trio with bassist Andersson and drummer Martin Andersen. He’d also had several gigs with the eminent composer/guitarist Pierre Dørge, with whom he’s made three of his 20-plus leader and sideman dates for Denmark’s SteepleChase label, documenting his perspective on repertoire culled from across the jazz continuum, but also an assortment of originals that facilitate improvised expression through a broad spectrum of moods.

“I embrace the whole history and I like playing different ways,” Knuffke said. “I love free improvisation and I like playing over tunes, things with forms and changes. To me, it’s all connected. I don’t really see a separation between Sidney Bechet and Albert Ayler. Things happened in between them. But if you think even about the sound and the vibrato, they were playing with the same spirit. I always want to do all these different things, these different ideas. That wasn’t necessarily a conscious or practical decision. It was a necessity.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Steve Lacy with Don Cherry
“Evidence” (Evidence, New Jazz). Lacy, soprano saxophone; Cherry, pocket trumpet; Carl Brown, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: I know this one well. Steve Lacy-Don Cherry Quartet, playing Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” I’m a big devotee of both those guys.

What did you glean from them?
I found out about Don Cherry in Colorado before I met Ron Miles. I was trying to figure out all I could about the history of jazz. I read about Ornette Coleman, and heard Don Cherry when I bought Ornette’s records. I felt strongly pulled toward his approach and his freedom. Then, when I started hanging out with Ron, he told me about Steve Lacy—who actually came to Boulder with his great trio of Jean-Jacques Avenel and John Betsch. I found a copy of Lacy’s book, Findings, which is impossible to get now. I talked to him about it, practiced a lot out of it, and have continued studying his music. I’ve recorded a lot of his compositions too. I love all his work, but his early records—this one; Reflections, where they play Monk’s music; and The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy—are pivotal, I think.

Steve Lacy was Steve Lackritz when he started as a Dixieland musician; Henry “Red” Allen called him Steve Lacy. My great-uncle played the cornet—I only knew him for a couple of years, but when I was a kid, he invited me to some jam sessions with these really ancient guys in Boulder to play Dixieland and trad music. I loved it. I had no idea what chords were, but I could get a good sound, I loved to improvise, and I could get around by ear. It was super-free. Steve Lacy went straight into the avant garde from traditional jazz, but of course he could also play over anything. He could do all the steps. But I think he saw a direct correlation between traditional and avant-garde.

I didn’t live in the right location or time period to see Don Cherry play live. His sound, especially the tone and attack, was different than a lot of his peers. But he also had the whole history in his back pocket. I’ve played a lot with Karl Berger, who was on some of Don Cherry’s greatest records, like Live at Café Montmartre with Gato Barbieri. Karl told me that Don had a photographic memory—he’d sit with a shortwave radio and listen to music from all over, digest all the bits and pieces, and then go into the recording or rehearsal and start playing melodies for the band. I love that he was so open to any influence, before there was even a genre called world music. His music is beautiful and honest. He plays whatever he hears, and he hears so much.

At the beginning of his solo, you hear a motivic improvisation that is exactly what I also associate with Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman. After Don Cherry left Ornette, Sonny wanted to work with him. So did John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, and he worked with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and in Old and New Dreams. He was obviously so important to so many people that you can’t overlook him.

2. Ornette Coleman/Charlie Haden
“Some Day” (Soapsuds, Soapsuds, Artists House). Coleman, trumpet, composer; Haden, bass. Recorded in 1977.

BEFORE: Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman on a special record. I love the albums where Ornette played trumpet: this track, the Golden Circle trios, and Jackie McLean’s New and Old Gospel, which I remember reading bad reviews of—people saying, “It could have been this meeting of the two altos, and then Ornette played trumpet.” Yeah, but it’s also awesome that he played trumpet on that record.

When I was hanging out with Ornette, we spent an afternoon playing trumpet and cornet at his loft. He made a joke: “I only play trumpet when I have a job.” He liked to joke around. That was the only time I could persuade him to play trumpet. He had a collection of very small mouthpieces, which I thought was interesting because I like to play on the biggest equipment I can get.

When I met Ornette, he wasn’t playing; he was in the audience. Kenny Wollesen invited me to go watch Dewey Redman play at Tompkins Square Park. I’d been in New York about a year. Kenny said to me, “Wow, look—there’s Ornette.” I freaked out. I ran toward him, though I didn’t catch him—he went backstage to watch the concerts. But I caught him after the concert and struck up a conversation. We started walking around the park, talking about music. Then he said, “We should get together again.” I went home and thought, “Whatever he asks, I’m going to pay, I have to do this.” But when I called, he said, “I’m not worried about that; just come over.” He wouldn’t accept any money. He said, “Any time you want to come, call me like an hour before.” That’s what I did. I wanted to go every day, but I tried to space it out so I wouldn’t overstay my welcome. I went once or twice a month for years.

What were the visits like?
He asked me a lot of questions—I think to make me think. He’d say,“Do you have a favorite key?” I said no. He said, “Right answer.” If I’d said, “Oh, I like to play in C minor…” So luckily, I had the right answer a bunch of times with him. We’d play duos and sometimes he’d stop fast and say, “You took it to the bridge, but we weren’t there yet”—stuff like that. Then I’d have to think about what he was talking about. I switched gears before we were ready. Sometimes we’d play for a long time, and he’d say something like, “You’re really putting something new in the game.” Once he said, “I’m working on trying to be free of the tonic, and you’re being very free of the tonic—how are you doing that?” I was flabbergasted. I said, “Actually what I’m trying to do is what I think you’re doing, as best as I can tell.”

One thing he did was write down lists of notes—not writing them on a piece of staff paper, but writing the note names on lined paper. “Okay, we’re going to play in F-sharp, A, and we’re gonna work with that.” Or he’d come up with them on the saxophone and write them down. He gave me a couple of those lists in his handwriting. It’s not really like 12-tone composition, but sometimes it had all 12 tones, which he’d configure in different triads, and so if you play these different triads, you get this many different formations of all 12 notes, and we’d improvise with that.

Sometimes we’d just hang out. Sometimes we’d go have lunch or dinner. I’d stay for hours sometimes. He was always dressed perfectly. It would be 11 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday, and he’d open the door with all his clothes perfectly intact, like he was about to go out on the stage. He always looked super-sharp. His loft was like an art museum. The paintings from Live from Leipzig and Dancing in Your Head were on the wall. Then, when he picked the saxophone up and played, you’re sitting right next to him and you’d hear that sound … It was more than I could handle sometimes.

He was so natural. He didn’t go through these little rituals. Saxophone players take apart their horns so meticulously—they remove the mouthpiece and ligature and the reed, and it’s all nice. Ornette just took the neck off, put it in the bell with no reed cover, and then took out the horn, pulled out the neck with the reed and mouthpiece and ligature, and put it on. Once in a while, the reed was dry, and it might take a split second for him to make a sound—and then it would happen, that sound I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear.

Ornette taught himself to play trumpet in the early ’60s, right around when Don Cherry joined Sonny Rollins. The notion of what technique he did or didn’t possess on trumpet cropped up not only for critics, but also trumpeters who had spent a lifetime accruing technique. As a trumpet player, assess Ornette’s technique by any metrics you’d care to.
In the fragment of that duo with Charlie Haden, when they arrived at a unison, it was so beautiful. Yes, you could say Ornette didn’t have as much time to develop the same technique another trumpeter may have had, but he was such a strong musical mind, such a natural musician that I think you could have given him anything for a couple of weeks and he could figure out something beautiful to do. He also decided to teach himself the violin during that period. I think if he’d played the piano or the bass, it would’ve been the same. He didn’t play trumpet too often, so it was a special thing and a special sound because of who he was. It had certain similarities to Don Cherry; obviously he was influenced by Don. I really like it. A lot of trumpet players do.

“I don’t really see a separation between Sidney Bechet and Albert Ayler. Things happened in between them. But they were playing with the same spirit.”

3. Butch Morris
“Cornet Solo” (Homeing, Sound Aspects). Morris, cornet. Recorded in 1987.

BEFORE: I was hoping, of course, that we’d talk about Butch. That was awesome. So free. So wild. Such incredible investigation of the instrument. Butch was huge in my life. After I moved to New York, Kenny Wollesen introduced me to Butch, and Butch started asking me to do things right away, based on Kenny’s recommendation. The first thing was a band he put together with Kenny, called Orchestra SLANG, which was never recorded. It had an incredible lineup with Angelica Sanchez on piano and Jonathon Haffner on saxophone. Then Butch brought me into the Nublu Orchestra and another group called Sketch Salon. He was the first person to record me in New York, and the first person I played with in the Festival of New Trumpet Music. For a while, he was working toward a comeback on cornet, and wanted to get his chops together before he appeared publicly. So we played cornets together at his apartment a couple of times, which I’ll never forget. For seven years I worked with him as a conductor, and I call him a mentor along with Ornette and Ron.

Talk about his concept of conduction.
Working with Butch in his conduction system formed me so much as a musician. I love to teach it. Because I worked with Butch for so long, I can go into a room of middle-school kids and have them improvising in half an hour. You start with the basic building blocks of music, such as, “We’re going to play a long sound or a short sound, a high or low sound.” Butch started from that elemental place. We’d play whole sets and do whole tours without any written music, starting from these basic building blocks, and then working with repetition, and then expanding on a repeat, and then pulling it back to what the original repeat was. “We’re going to start in a tempo” or “You’re going to start in a tempo and you’re not going to be in a tempo”—and then we see what happens.

One of the first signs he always taught was called Sustain. He’d put his hand out in front of the band, and when the baton crossed his hand, you’d start a new sustain of your choosing. Everyone in the band chooses whatever note they want to play, but informed by what the ensemble sound is, so you’re not the loudest thing or the quietest thing—and we’re going to arrive at a chord that no one could have ever written. The band was his instrument. You have to be a good improviser to do it, and you have to be keenly focused on him or he’d get angry at you. It required a lot of discipline—and he also had amazing discipline. You couldn’t argue with it. He recorded every gig and before the next gig, he would talk about the notes he’d made about the last one: “This wasn’t good; this was good; let’s try to do this better.” Really intense guy. But also a marvelous, hilarious guy. On the bandstand he could be terrifying. But the second it was over, he’d kiss you on the cheek and buy you a drink.

4. Nicholas Payton
“Tea for Two” (Relaxin’ With Nick, Smoke Sessions). Payton, trumpet, Fender Rhodes; Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: Incredible drumming. Even from the first notes, you feel like you’re sitting in the room with the band. It’s relaxed and fun and original. I’m not familiar with that record. The trumpet player was great. Very familiar-sounding. It’s obviously a newer record than we’ve been listening to. Steeped in all the traditions, but original and loose, the way I think you should be. It’s playing what you hear. Really great band.

For a long time it was rare for a trumpet player to make a record with just bass and drums. Saxophone players do it all the time, but trumpet or cornet is so tiring to play, it’s nice to have a saxophonist or pianist around to help you shoulder the weight. But I did set out wanting to make trio records because I love the freedom and space of the format. Also, even when I was young, I started playing a lot of duos, not only because it was hard to get a whole band together, but [because] it was so interesting to play just with the piano, and then just with the bass, and then just with the drums, and then just with drums and bass, and then just with piano and bass. I put together the classic rhythm section in smaller parts, so I could listen to these players and instruments clearly without other things happening.

Any guesses re the trumpeter’s identity?
Well, the drums sounded so swinging that I did have a feeling about Kenny Washington.

You are correct.
The trumpet player has listened so much to so many of all of our favorite players; the relaxed approach tells you they’ve been around for a long time. But I can’t say I knew who it is.

AFTER: I’ll have to get this record. I hadn’t heard. Nicholas is a marvelous player. I got his first records, right when he became a big star, the band with Tim Warfield. If you’d played me a track from one of those early records, I definitely would’ve known right off the bat. His sound changed a little bit over time, like everybody’s does. That was great.

5. Graham Haynes
“Variation 2” (bpm, Knitting Factory). Haynes, cornet; Marque Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2000.

BEFORE: This record I know. Graham gave it to me. Man, that’s the cornet! People say, “It’s the same as the trumpet, right?” No. It actually isn’t. That’s what a cornet sounds like. At the time of that record, Graham played on an old cornet, which is similar to my first cornet. He’s one of my all-time favorite cornet players. When people say, “Who do you like?,” after I say Ron Miles, I always say Graham Haynes. He and I were the cornet players in the Nublu Orchestra. Butch set us up opposite each other on the bandstand, so we didn’t sit next to each other. There were two drum sets, two guitar players, two cornets, two saxophones—a kind of double band—and Butch split us down the middle and pitted us against each other. Since Butch passed, Graham has gone on to lead the Nublu Orchestra many times. Not as consistently as we used to with Butch, obviously, but we’ve gotten together to play Butch Morris tribute concerts where Graham does the conducting in the style of Butch, with the same hand gestures.

Have you worked much in electronica or post-production contexts?
Not much, no. Graham obviously did cool things with Bill Laswell, and I’ve seen him do sets just with a DJ, and get into this whole thing he was doing with Hardedge at [Manhattan club] Nublu. I haven’t done much of that, though if anybody wanted to, I definitely would. When I close my eyes and hear what music I want to make, that element isn’t always there. I’m not opposed to it. It just hasn’t happened. I like when somebody like Graham does it—absolutely.

Are there differences between cornet and trumpet that are maybe not so obvious to the common person?
It might not be obvious. It’s even hard for me to describe, but the timbre of the instrument is different. I also think that if you choose to play it, you are a bit of a different person. It takes an interesting character to play the cornet, for a lot of reasons. It’s not as easy to play high notes and loud notes and all these things. But it has a special character, a warmth and a nimble quality. You can move around a bit more, whereas the trumpet in some ways is set in what it’s gonna do—though of course you can push it around. Until pretty recently, trumpets were all made similarly in design. If you do an image search of the cornet, you see these wild, different shapes. All cornet-makers had their own take on them, though there are certain similarities; it’s a conical instrument, not a cylindrical instrument, which makes it a cornet. Many aren’t always able to distinguish it. Of course, I do it for my life. But when I hear it, I think, “Okay, that’s the cornet sound.”

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.