Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Before & After with Kirk Knuffke

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

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.
Kirk Kunuffke 2022 Vision Festival
Kirk Knuffke at Roulette, Brooklyn, during the 2022 Vision Festival (photo: Alan Nahigian)

6. John Carter/Bobby Bradford Quartet
“Song for the Unsung” (Seeking, Hat Hut). Bradford, trumpet, composer; Carter, tenor saxophone; Tom Williamson, bass; Bruz Freeman, drums. Recorded in 1969.

BEFORE: This is Bobby Bradford. The sound tells you it’s Bobby, but there’s a way he develops motivically as the improvisation progresses which is quite reminiscent of Ornette. Of course, Bobby is a complete individual. But in a certain way I feel he was influenced by Ornette maybe even more than Don was, in the way that he works with and expands upon the motifs and ideas. He’s awesome. I love all my records of him, though I can’t say I have that one. I don’t know the rhythm section.

Don Cherry played the pocket trumpet, Bobby Bradford played a lot of cornet. Is there anything to it other than their personal predisposition or idiosyncrasy?
Well, I think Don played a straight-up cornet on the Montmartre sessions I mentioned earlier, but people have also told me that what’s described as a pocket trumpet on those records is really a pocket cornet. I believe it should almost always say cornet, even though you can see pictures of him playing a straight trumpet. But he was often playing on that wild little thing. So it’s interesting that Bobby and Don played the cornet. To me, it’s about a certain sound and a personality. I mentioned earlier that it takes a different person to do it, and maybe Ornette liked those types of people.

7. The Art Ensemble of Chicago
“New York Is Full of Lonely People” (Urban Bushmen, ECM). Lester Bowie, trumpet, composer; Malachi Favors, bass; Famoudou Don Moye, drums; Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, reeds and percussion. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: Gorgeous Lester Bowie playing. I wasn’t sure what record, but Phillip Wilson played that sort of beat so well … since it was Lester … It didn’t immediately come across to me like an Art Ensemble record yet, but the other horn players were finally coming in when we stopped listening. It definitely could have been an Art Ensemble record, though, but not a super-early one.

AFTER: The bass sound was a giveaway. I should have waited longer. Lester is one of my all-time favorites, so expressive and fluid, so many different approaches and so many timbres in one solo, from brash to whispers. To me, that’s the highest technique, because Lester Bowie had so many ways to do things and it always sounded like him no matter what. Some of the greatest sounds coming out of a trumpet I’ve ever heard on record were Lester Bowie.

Where were you in your development when you became aware of him?
Well, it was through Ron Miles, and it was before I knew about the Art Ensemble. Ron was listening to a Brass Fantasy record called The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music [Atlantic, 1997]. I asked Ron what it was. He said, “This guy is one of our greatest living trumpet players.” So I went to the record store and bought it. It’s an awesome record, where they played whatever they wanted: Spice Girls, Marilyn Manson. Then I bought my first Art Ensemble record, Tutankhamun [Freedom, 1969], which is wild—and I started getting into the Art Ensemble. One of my all-time favorites is Coming Home Jamaica [Atlantic, 1998], which is a quartet without Joseph Jarman. I haven’t heard this one as many times, but now I’m going to rectify that.

“I love that Don Cherry was so open to any influence. He plays whatever he hears, and he hears so much.”

8. Miles Davis
“White” (Aura, Columbia). Davis, trumpet; Palle Mikkelborg, composer; Danish Radio Big Band; Vince Wilburn, electric drums. Recorded in 1985.

BEFORE: Oddly enough, this is one of the first Miles records I acquired. I got it when it came out, and I worked backwards. I already had Kind of Blue, but that might have been my only Miles record. I haven’t heard this in years. It sounds like it came out yesterday, with all the wild explorations and the post-production—such a cool-sounding record.

Miles was the first person I heard with the approach I’d later find in other players. But when I was really young, it was, “Okay, who’s famous who plays jazz? Miles Davis is famous, so I should go and buy his records.” But this one wasn’t what I expected to hear. I expected it to sound like what people call the “First Quintet.” I didn’t think about it being a new record and of course it’s not gonna sound like the ’50s. Miles always sounded like himself in any environment. He had such a fearless approach, which inspired me. I learned the first part, that little intro, on my trumpet in my room. I had a picture of Miles, which I put on a posterboard and hung on my wall.

I hear clearly that Miles and Don Cherry were definitely checking each other out. We know this was Miles, but if you pulled out and isolated two notes, you could think it was Don in places. They had a similar approach with the Harmon mute, soft and breathy.

What do you think Miles means to your peer group, the people you emerged with, who came up with a similar stream of influences?
I think he’ll always be a big influence, just as Louis Armstrong will always be a big influence. Very much a stylistic influence on the trumpet. In fact, trumpet players still get obsessed with Miles, and probably always will, with trying to get into a Miles approach and sound. Conceptually, some people are into the Bitches Brew sound, others get into the sound of Miles Smiles or Live/Evil. I’d say fewer go for Aura or that generation of records—although Graham does, and other people do. But everybody gets into the stuff with Coltrane and Cannonball. It took me a while to come around to some of the later records. But I love all of them.

9. Ron Miles
“I Am a Man” (I Am a Man, Enja/Yellowbird). Miles, cornet, composer; Bill Frisell, guitar; Jason Moran, piano; Thomas Morgan, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: That was the first time I’ve heard Ron since he passed. I haven’t been able to bring myself to hear anything since then. Thank you for playing it, because I need to start listening to him again. Beautiful. It’s such a Ron Miles composition. He always put in these little twists and turns, and there’s his ensemble sound, working with Bill Frisell for so long. If you go back to Woman’s Day [Gramavision, 1997], a sound developed that he kept building on the whole time. And his compositions were marvelous. His playing was great. He’s one of the most important people in my life, in so many ways.

The first time I heard Ron, I immediately connected with his sound. He wasn’t a super-flashy player. He could do whatever he wanted, and got into a lot of sonic explorations, but what he often wanted to do was play beautiful melodies. Compositionally he used pretty complicated forms. Even if it doesn’t sound complex right away, a lot of switching meters and odd time signatures and irregular bars happening in the middle of phrases. He worked with complex harmonies as well. He played trumpet sometimes, but he had a cornet approach.

He practiced extensively, which inspired me. I love to practice. Each time I went to his house in Denver, he was writing something. He said he wrote every day. Put your pencil on the paper every single day, whether or not you write a lot. He was always checking things out too. He told me about so many different people, including Steve Lacy and Lester Bowie, who we’ve talked about. He had such a warm, unique sound, instantly recognizable. You know him right away, from the compositions, from the bands, and then from his sound and his approach.

10. Branford Marsalis Quartet
“Laughin’ & Talkin’ (with Higg)” (Romare Bearden Revealed, Marsalis Music). Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums, composer. Recorded in 2003.

BEFORE: Wow. That’s some avant-garde trumpet playing right there, isn’t it? Wynton. Covering so much ground. You can hear it’s him in the time feel, this thing that’s a little reminiscent of Clark Terry in the articulation, almost swallowing half the notes in this weird way. It’s super-swinging. But then he’ll go completely out and do all this fantastic avant-garde stuff. People think, “Okay, Wynton is straight-ahead.” But this is totally out music—very difficult to do. He was playing his ass off. So is the rest of the band. I can hear that the saxophone is Branford. Is Tain playing drums? I got so zeroed in that I didn’t … What a band.

Was Wynton important to you as a young trumpet player?
Yes. I bought the Standard Time, Volume One record when it came out, on which he plays that “Caravan” solo. It’s mindboggling. But I have to say I like the solo we just heard even more.

I also got to know Wynton a bit after I moved to New York. He was at a Henry Threadgill concert in the sculpture garden at MoMA, and I talked to him after that. I hung out with him a couple of times and practiced at his apartment right by Lincoln Center. He was very cool to me. We talked a lot about how to warm up and real basic stuff. I learned about how he works on long tones. I liked watching him do lip flexibility exercises. I always give it up when anybody talks about him, and tell them he can do amazing things on the trumpet. That was an inspiring solo. You can absolutely hear a throughline—Wynton was listening to Miles, and he was listening to Don Cherry.

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.