in performance: kuzu

Kuzu: Tyler Damon, Dave Rempis and Tashi Dorji. Photo by Julia Dratel.

There is symmetry and coincidence in how the moniker of the Chicago-rooted jazz trio Kuzu is pronounced so similarly to the name of a certain, portable instrument – namely, the kazoo. Sure, the latter is in large measure a toy, a hand-held device capable of creating considerable animation and noise. In its own way, Kuzu, which played a volcanically intense set of improvisational music Tuesday evening at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery for the Outside the Spotlight Series, reflects similar traits. Collectively, the group’s music isn’t as cartoonish as what you get out of a kazoo. But there is a complimentary sense of wonder at work in both camps, a level of playful abandon.

On a kazoo, that kind of bedevilment sounds innocently reckless. From Kuzu, the music sounds purposely combustible. It’s the same manner of thinking except that at the Niles Gallery concert, the trio tossed all that mischief out in the open and set it on fire.

Led by Chicago saxophonist and OTS frequent flyer Dave Rempis, Kuzu revealed itself as a trio with rockish tendencies in its sense of musical proportions. That didn’t mean guitarist Tashi Dorji resorted to conventional power chords or technically overcooked soloing. Instead, he produced a sound that worked as a rhythmic foundation for the band in his use of short, clipped shards of electric color as well as a bass device, playing under the ensemble sound, especially when Rempis manned the baritone saxophone.

From there, drummer Tyler Damon (a duo mate of Dorji prior to the formation of Kuzu) seemed to dictate the pulse of the program, which was divided into two extended, untitled improvisations. At times, Damon’s playing was a set up for Rempis, as during the opening moments of the performance when a chattering of cymbals seemed to count in the entrance of a tenor sax avalanche. In other instances, he was able to lead the full trio to rhythmic retreats and even a dash of swing. But these were very brief moments – cues, really – that allowed the trio to work its way back into a thundering lather.

Rempis, as always, was a wellspring of dynamics and stamina. His vocabulary of alto, tenor and baritone ingenuity remained vast, operating from elongated lines of the blues on alto one moment and rounds of circular tenor spitfire the next that seemed to circle for a landing after a musical dogfight with Damon.

The room acoustics played a role in this merry chaos, too. The natural echo of the Niles Gallery seemed to magnify the clarity and volume of sax and drums. Curiously, electric guitar, the only amplified instrument of the three, struggled to be heard above its acoustic counterparts. But the ensemble sensibility, full of vigor and invention, never waned.

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