Drummer Keith Hall is no rookie in the jazz scene, having worked with genre luminaries including Betty Carter and Sir Roland Hanna, but he has now released his first record as a leader. Joined by saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and bassist Robert Hurst III, Made in Kalamazoo is a collection of duos, trios, and solo improvisations dedicated to the town where both Hall and Rathbun live.
As one might expect from a drummer-led group, rhythm plays a central role on the record. The opening piece is a solo performance by Hall. “Be Curious (Ode to Billy Hart)” is less than a minute long, but displays Hall’s agile drum style. When the full trio convenes on “Douglass King Obama,” we see these qualities spread among all the musicians. While there is melodic and harmonic material to work with, the emphasis rests squarely on the complex rhythmic dance between the three instruments.
This interplay continues over the several trio pieces that follow. While all three players are obviously fluent in modern jazz, there is an almost bop-like playfulness to these tunes. In other words, they swing. The lack of piano doesn’t propel them to greater harmonic freedom as much as it emphasizes the rhythmic skeleton underpinning the music.
Tunes like “Kzoo Brew” and “The Promise” find each instrument forging its own path, but not in a free jazz sort of way. Rather, it’s done in a more call-and-response fashion, but somehow more nuanced and complex. Rathbun will play a line and as he finishes a phrase, Hurst comes in to fill the void. Hall underpins everything that truly outlines the architecture of the song.
“Coming of Age” slows the tempo down a bit, and things feel just a bit more conventional, but expertly executed nonetheless. Hall constantly accents the beat in different ways and there is a sense of the song undergoing constant evolution. Hurst supplies a particularly effective bass solo before ceding the spotlight to Rathbun. As with the best trios, there is a constant conversation between the musicians. Even when someone is soloing, the other two are never really lost in the background.
The aptly titled “Interlude,” another solo piece by Hall, appears halfway through and signals a shift in the album. We have not only reached the duo portion of the album, with Hall and Rathbun playing together, but things take on a more experimental hue as well. While rhythm still plays a central role, they achieve this in new ways.
Take “Mop It Up” for instance, the first of the duo pieces. Here Rathbun employs electronics to loop one of his phrases and he then begins to solo over the top. On “Get Up, Get Out,” he adds a wah-wah to his horn to funky effect as Hall lays down a New Orleans-style shuffle underneath. One might imagine electric era Miles Davis, if he played sax and played a duet with Lenny White.
Other pieces are not quite as far out. “Dream Sequence” starts and ends with some strange electronic elements, but most of the song consists of the two musicians unadorned, doing what they do best. “Sweep” is an entirely acoustic performance. Hall and Rathbun push and pull against the music as they create. Sometimes it’s the most “out” song on the record, sometimes it just swings. Either way, it’s fascinating.
The album closes with “Thank You, Max,” another solo drum performance dedicated to a legend on the kit, Max Roach. It’s once again brief, but powerful. It provides insight into just where Hall is coming from.
At first glance, Made in Kalamazoo is a stripped-down record. But all the space opened up by the sparse instrumentation allows the details to shine through. The album swings and stimulates, it’s both modern and memorable. Hall gives the listener everything they could ask for and still leaves them wanting more.