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Max Johnson, Kirk Knuffke, Ziv Ravitz: Something Familiar

Karl Ackermann By

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New York native Max Johnson does not appear to require sleep. The bassist/composer, whose career spans the wide terrain from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to Lollapalooza to Anthony Braxton consistently delivers fresh, adventurous, high-quality music against an ambitious output. With his now-regular working trio of Kirk Knuffke on cornet and drummer Ziv Ravitz, the group has released their best work to date on Something Familiar.

As Johnson's star rises, so too does Knuffke's whose been drawing high spots in national polls with a performance resume that boasts of trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist William Parker and pianist Uri Caine to name just a few. His solo career has been prolific as well, tackling more ambiguous works and the extension on themes from Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington. Ravitz—whose credits include two releases with the Lee Konitz Quartet—is frequently in demand on the New York scene and is currently working with bassist Chris Lightcap in saxophonist Christoph Irniger's Trio.

With two previous releases, Elevated Vegetation (FMR Records, 2012) and The Invisible Trio (Fresh Sounds-New Talent, 2014), the Johnson-Knuffke-Ravitz trio has refined the art of assimilating clean melodies and extended techniques. Something Familiar opens with "Cindoze," a plaintive cornet joined shortly by Johnson's spare plucking before Ravitz kicks the piece into higher gear. Johnson's bass is deep, woody and very musical. He often brings to mind a hybrid of Dave Holland and William Parker in his uncanny ability to focus on a simultaneous approach to a balance of free improvisation and melody.

More abstract is "Blips and Bloops" with Knuffke utilizing the full range of the cornet, almost making the instrument speak in tongues. Similarly, "Cold Blooded" and "Little Arnie" feature fine and intricate extended solos from Johnson while remaining fully rooted in the avant-garde. "Les Vague"—with its mournful brass opening complimented by Johnson's bowed bass—is a beautifully melodic oasis in the midst of all the free improvisation of Something Familiar. "Hammer Song," another nice combination of melody and free playing, has pleasantly layered overlapping segments that bleed into the title track, an upbeat and leisurely piece propelled by Ravitz. The closing number, "Wind Song" enters as the title would indicate, quietly building on Knuffke and Johnson's contemplative drifting across the soundscape and tom-toms gently providing distant thunder.

A skill in and of itself is Johnson's ability to play powerfully without over-dominating the music. He, Knuffke and Ravitz have developed a sure-footed synergy and an empathetic relationship while meeting a high level of individual improvisation. Johnson wears three hats—as he often does—as composer, player and engineer and it's worth noting as the pristine sound quality becomes a fourth player in this complex music. These individual artists are well along the path to establishing legacies and Something Familiar is a great place to catch them along the way.

Track Listing: Cindoze; Blips and Bloops; Cold Blooded; Little Arnie; Les Vague; Hammer Song; Something Familiar; Wind Song.

Personnel: Kirk Knuffke: cornet; Max Johnson: bass; Ziv Ravitz: drums.

Title: Something Familiar | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Fresh Sound Records

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