Playing music with a breathless attitude and fresh, twitchy compositions that do much more than swing is almost anathema to jazz (or at least jazz as it’s normally perceived). When someone in the idiom makes that their signature sound, they deserve attention as someone trying to bring that idiom into the present.
That’s what pianist, composer and bandleader Kait Dunton’s been doing since her outstanding 2008 debut Real And Imagined. After taking a significant diversion pursuing doctoral studies at USC’s prestigious Thornton School of Music and making a “with horns” album with some of her renowned instructors (Mountain Suite (2012)), Dunton has now turned her full attention to her music career, and that’s led her right back to the rock solid foundation established with Real.
Her creative, embraceable, contemporary take on the acoustic jazz trio is just too good not to revisit, and she formed a new trio to carry it out. trioKAIT has fellow young talents Jake Reed on drums and Cooper Appelt on electric bass, introducing an electric instrument to a Kait Dunton for the first time. That doesn’t really change her overall mission, and her compositions here can be described much as they were described for her first album:
“…these pieces don’t ever take the path of least resistance; there’s tempo changes, musical trains of thoughts stopping on a dime and changing to other (albeit related) thoughts, and other delightful, unexpected twists and turns. Perhaps what makes this so listenable, though, is that Dunton’s music is like that popular breakfast cereal: it’s got a lot of snap, crackle and pop.”
trioKAIT (out on July 31, 2015 through Kait Dunton’s Real and Imagined imprint) is the first album by this small combo, the first since Dunton has completed her studies and so oddly enough, it’s her real debut in a sense. Fans of her first album will nonetheless find plenty to latch onto here. For one, Kait Dunton’s ginormous chops are on ample display again, starting with “Prelude,” where she prances elegantly through the shifting progressions and uncorks a scorcher solo in a performance that can stand up to Hiromi.
The intro blasts in on “Chrysocolla” followed by an uptempo, brisk motif that’s immediate and bustling, and Appelt’s bass counterparts completing the sonic picture. It’s just the kind of piano trio song that will make you get speeding ticket listening to it in the car. And if that tune doesn’t push you toward a citation, “Time Travel” might, with another intro that charges out the gate, then pauses briefly, then takes off again; the discreet modulation through the changes rivals the Pat Metheny Group. Dunton drops chunks of notes like she can’t discharge them fast enough, and before it can get too overwhelming, the band shuts it down abruptly.
Kait Dunton masters not just the melodic parts but minds the rhythmic components just as much. For example, “Noraa” is a three-beat number but largely thanks to Reed it shuffles instead of waltzes and Dunton’s delicate handling of the melody adds to the sophistication of it.
Some growth is to be expected in the seven year span between trio records, and it shows up in several little ways, mostly in the way of a greater abundance of tunes where Dunton steps off the gas, trading in pure energy with subtlety. The best of her “soft groovers” that populate most of the second half of the album might be “Outlook Good,” where on the surface it’s pleasant enough as a Ramsey Lewis type of jazzy confection but it’s also a pretty melody that’s injected with sublime fills, and a veteran sense of when to play with, ahead and behind the beat. “Yes” is played with an intelligent economy, where Kait Dunton gives her rhythm section space to fill out the harmony and lay down some mid-tempo funk. Reed’s drum solo behind the piano gets the point across effectively with fewer strokes, a mark of a confident, experienced drummer.
Throughout the album, there’s a vague sense of the music being influenced by modern sounds of today, but that’s made more explicit with the ending track “Custom,” a relatively brief tune that lays down a chillin’ organic downtempo groove without nearly no soloing. More ‘mellow mood’ than ‘sizzling spontaneity,’ it puts an ambient coda on a dynamic, vibrant and arresting album.
trioKAIT is the promise of Kait Dunton realized and since she’s getting started, she could very well have more tricks up her sleeve later on. But if she doesn’t, more of this would be just fine.