Kait Dunton and trioKAIT Create a Thrilling and Original Soulful Jazz Sound on 'trioKAIT 2'
A new kind of jazz trio demonstrates that 21st century jazz can be subtle and soulful at the same time, still mining the power of conversation.
Real & Imagined Music
11 May 2018
Kait Dunton is a keyboard player based in Los Angeles whose biography inevitably notes that she played in a early version of the popular jazz machine, Snarky Puppy. That detail is only partly telling. Yes, her band trioKAIT takes a high energy approach to an old format, using both electric and acoustic keyboards, electric bass, and drums to groove and swing in equal measure. The difference, however, is that Dunton's trio can only sizzle you so many ways, and so she never forgets to invest her music with emotion as well as drama and chops.
Which is say, the band's second recording, trioKAIT 2, is thrilling and original.
"The Hunch", for example, begins as a traditional piece of modern piano trio music: haunting chords with a gently surging ride cymbal pattern that slowly evolves into a tumbling melody. As Dunston develops more of her right hand, you can hear some licks suggesting the influence of Chick Corea. But as the tune pushes into a change at the 80-second mark, Cooper Appelt's electric bass begins pulsing in a cool, staccato manner and Jake Reed's drums grow suddenly spare and off-kilter. No Corea trio ever sounded like that. The rhythmic agenda of this band is intriguingly varied.
"J & J's" is driven by off-beat finger snaps beneath a Wurlitzer piano theme, which turns into a greasy quasi-Motown pocket. For the bass solo, the groove struts proudly but with laidback ease. "Reentry" has a Morse Code bass line that is doubled by the piano's left hand while the drums find a skittering backbeat. "Title Track" is slow and ambient with snare clicks that set up a slightly wavy version of 6/8 time. Each track, indeed, finds ways to play with the idea of pulse in a jazz trio. More so than The Bad Plus or Robert Glasper's trio, trioKAIT uses a huge variety of rhythms to bring a new century to a jazz trio tradition that has proven capable of absorbing change.
Dunton is expert at putting various keyboard sounds into her trio concept while still maintaining an organic conversation among the three voices. "OCD" uses a synth and a Fender Rhodes electric piano (with a touch of phaser and distortion, it seems) to generate heat on this fusion-y rocker. Reed and Appelt do not hold back, and Dunton is right there with them, using a bass figure and call-and-response patterns in her right hand to keep everything cycling together. "Thematic" blends acoustic piano and washes of electric piano to generate a mysterious atmosphere that takes advantage of both instruments' unique reverb. In the tune's second half, however, the groove is double-timed and piano now blends with a high, distant synth. "Frontier" layers up synth, Rhodes, and (possibly) a Hohner Clavinet to create a small symphony in the Stevie Wonder manner.
These colors and textures are never deployed as a kind of overload or in a kitschy love of gizmos. Instead, Dunton seems to be using the tools available to her to get the music across most effectively. There is a version here of "Pure Imagination", the Anthony Newley song from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, for example, that uses Rhodes and variety of whispering, flutey synths to put across the odd, dreamy song. Every choice of sound and texture seems right on for conveying this particular song.
The thrill of this music comes when it is not necessarily trying to blow you away. "Nude" begins with a simple vamp and a motivic melody. Reed's drums lock into an insistent backbeat for a while, but then the band pulls back to piano/bass only and when Reed re-enters it is with a subtler approach on cymbals. The trio has given you a small taste of its power, and now Dunton's improvisation will take its time getting you there, only to hand the groove over to a funky bass solo beneath which she plays a modified gospel style that will remind fans of a certain age of the playing from Richard Tee.
"In Our Space" is a slow ballad for Rhodes that uses a set of harmonies that move like church but also find curious variations that could be from an early Herbie Hancock recording. Reed's snare pops the tune with a hard "4" in its 6/8 time as Dunton plays the gentlest of themes, using the electric piano like a watercolor brush. "Alkibo" uses a modified hip-hop groove and layers of keyboards to get the hips swaying, but it features one of her most joyous solos—a set of rippling statements that sashay through the blues with a great smile. Similarly, "Title Track" allows Dunton to play a lazy but sexy theme on Rhodes that draws its power not from chops or speed but from the ingenious juxtaposition of various patterns: the melody, a rippling figure behind it, snare clicks, electric bass obligato, and faint synth washes that creep in like morning sunlight.
This is where the art of trioKAIT surges—in subtlety that nevertheless sounds like today. Kait Dunton is onto something here: a slink, a slippery groove, the occasional explosion of fireworks but a greater dose of pure trio conversation. trioKAIT 2 is a grower in every sense, a record that works over time to keep feeding you a greater and greater sense of why jazz is art and popular vernacular at the same time. What a combination.
And what a trio.