By Peter Margasak | Published February 2019
Cornetist Kirk Knuffke is a jazz musician through and through, bringing rigorous engagement and serious erudition to everything he does. But within that context, he’s revealed a feverish imagination and a restless curiosity, qualities that allow him to toggle effortlessly between tradition and the avant-garde. Still, on Witness he’s delivered the most audacious project of his prolific career, partnering with classical baritone Steven Herring to make surprising connections among opera, spirituals and free-jazz. The singer’s operatic background is made clear from his first utterance on the title track, where Herring and Knuffke’s chamber-like band interact with astonishing grace and sensitivity.
The singer might remind listeners of balladeer Johnny Hartman with his dramatic reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” with articulation that doesn’t scrimp on bringing every syllable to life, including phrases of biting desolation: “While I rot with the rest.” The operatic arias of Puccini, Rossini and Verdi are a bit tougher to digest, as the singer collides formal delivery against a more intuitive response by the instrumentalists. Unsurprisingly, among the highlights are original settings of poetry by Knuffke, where everything fits perfectly.
Witness: Witness; Lush Life; Ride On, King Jesus; The Satellites Are Spinning; Iago’s Credo; Subway; Aria Mustafa; Charade; Storm; The Voice; Questo Amor; A City Called Heaven. (66:23)
Personnel: Kirk Knuffke, cornet; Steven Herring, vocals; Ben Goldberg, contralto clarinet; Ross Lossing, piano.