CKW Trio | The Is

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Jazz: Free Jazz Avant Garde: Structured Improvisation Moods: Type: Improvisational
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The Is

by CKW Trio

Acoustic post-modern Jazz which uses sound mass, circle music, non-western scales - but aside from the parts that most clearly reflect composition and improvisation, the music here hopes to stand outside (and then sometimes inside) traditional boundaries.
Genre: Jazz: Free Jazz
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. Mondrian en Amérique
4:41 $0.99
2. Augmented
5:16 $0.99
3. Iram
4:31 $0.99
4. (Three Headed Yogi Seal)
5:26 $0.99
5. R'izhii
4:49 $0.99
6. Alex in Wonderland
6:32 $0.99
7. 4+#11m6m7
7:09 $0.99
8. Da Yun He
5:15 $0.99
9. (21st Century Blues)
5:50 $0.99
10. Spirits
5:18 $0.99
11. Marchin' Home
6:05 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
Liner Notes:

... an indefinite suspension of the possible, the is.

from "Getting Lost"
by Laton Carter

When making music, I'm sometimes asked which "style" this group plays in. Do we favor straight-ahead jazz, free jazz, through-composed, West Coast, East Coast, uptown, downtown? The truth is, I don't really know. In trying to answer the question, I might list some techniques I'm interested in - sound mass, circle music, the use of non-Western scales - but aside from the parts that most clearly reflect composition and improvisation, the music here hopes to stand outside (and then sometimes inside) traditional boundaries. Ornette Coleman answered the question best: "This is our music."

The musicians in the trio make the style of our music. Classically trained cellist and composer Alex Kelly has an eclectic background that involves both free-improvisation and circus music. Drummer Andrew Wilshusen comes from the domain of "jazz," but is always exploring new paths and beats in music. It is my great pleasure to make music with both of them, and I hope you enjoy the results.

Mondrian en Amérique

The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian moved to New York in 1940 after living his previous twenty years in Paris. Recognized as the founder of Neo-Plasticism, Mondrian's work in this "movement" adhered to a rigid form of abstraction, the rules of which allowed only for a canvas to be subsected into various sized rectangles, and then filled with color using a strictly limited palette. This performance attempts to reflect Mondrian's use of pure line, space, and color juxtaposition.


This performance is the result of experimenting with an augmented scale (which utilizes a # 11 and 5). I love that this scale can yield major, minor, and augmented triads. To go along with such flexibility, we have used a flexible tempo.


Lawrence of Arabia called the lost city of Iram, or Ubar, "The Atlantis of the Sands." Iram, the "City of Towers" in the Quran, fell into a sinkhole that was created when an underground limestone cavern collapsed. According to legend, Iram was destroyed during a natural disaster about C.E. 100 and was buried by sand. This song is a musical tribute to the buried city.

(Three Headed Yogi Seal)

This song title refers to an ancient Indus script that has never been deciphered. The script was written above a male diety with three faces, seated in a yogic position on a throne. The trio symbolism of the script naturally suggested itself for our resulting free improvisation.


R'izhii is the name for the red-haired clown in Russian circuses. A possible precursor to the Auguste clown, R'izhii is known for foolish behavior and tripping and falling gags. With exaggerated make-up and movements, this is the zaniest of clowns. The performance here was originally intended to be a free improvisation, but somehow everyone turned their ideas toward a tune Alex had previously written for a circus, and that we had recorded some months earlier.

Alex in Wonderland

When Alex could not come up with a title for this composition of his, Andrew and I came up with one, imagining Alex playing as if he had reached another world. This tune uses a form of AAA'BB'CdA, and each major section features one of the members of the group. The A section is for cello, the B section is for tenor sax, and C features percussion.


This piece uses a four-note cell for its structure. We restricted ourselves in this performance to using only the available notes from the cell, but allowed the freedom of playing them in any order and with any tempi. Another section expands the four notes into a hybrid mode, which is based on a major scale, but with an augmented 4 and a minor 6 and 7.

(Da Yun He)

In the year 605, Emperor Yang Guang of Sui Dynasty started construction on the Da Yun He (Grand Canal), which is now the largest man made river in the world (1115 miles). At the end of the book Lu Ding Ji (The Deer and The Cauldron) by Jin Yong (Louis Cha), the hero Xiao Bao (Trinket) escapes his troubles with his seven wives during a storm on the Da Yun He. This territory piece (territory II BC D) was inspired by that part of the book.

(aka 21st Century Blues)

This piece uses a form known as circle music, which Dr. Cindy McTee introduced to me in the late 1980's when she wrote a circle music piece for Sue Bancroft, my bassoon teacher at the time. Essentially, circle music uses phrases that can be played at any time and in any order. For this performance, I took short phrases from blues tunes in the jazz idiom, and then modified them, while still hoping to keep their shape recognizable.

Spirits (territory I F FD)

Like Da Yun He, this piece uses a "territory" technique. A soundscape or soundmass is used as a general territory to improvise on. George Crumb is the looming spirit here.

Marchin' Home

The construction and performance of this piece is based on a melody line very similar to a Julius Hemphill composition entitled "Fifteen." After a long journey, it is always good to come home.



CKW Trio's approach to acoustic post-modern jazz allows for a freedom of emotional expression. With solid grooves and explosions of energy and sound, CKW Trio's music reminds one of the music being played by Ken Vandermark and John Zorn's Masada. The instrumentation is similar to Julius Hemphill's trio; woodwinds, cello and percussion. CKW trio plays in a cutting edge jazz style making use of modern forms like circle music and experiments with time and rhythm. They use various non-western scales and sounds as central points for launching into improvisations. This adventure in jazz is created by the unique ideas of the members of the group and can be heard on their new CD, The Is, available here on CDBaby.
The multi-instrumentalist Michael Cooke heads up the group, with his aggressive tenor saxophone style. This Louis Armstrong Jazz Award winner mainly plays tenor, but you will also hear him play soprano and alto sax, flute, bass clarinet, bassoon and percussion. Michael started playing jazz in High school where he played for homeless shelters in Atlanta. A cum laude music graduate University of North Texas, Michael has played in Europe, Mexico and all over the United States. Relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area, he is striving to develop his style and has recently started studying Larry Ochs' "Radar" composition techniques. Denise Berardini of the San Francisco Beacon describes Michael's "talented sax flowing out color and tone with such feeling I haven't heard in quite a while. Michael plays with such dimension and flavor, that it sets his sound apart from the rest." Uncompromising, fiery, complex, passionate, and cathartic is how the All Music Guide labeled Michael's playing on "Searching" by Cooke Quartet and "Statements" by Michael Cooke.
Cellist and composer Alex Kelly is currently completing a D.M.A. in Cello Performance with a secondary area in Composition from the University of Oregon. As a cellist, Alex has performed throughout the United States and Canada for the past ten years. In the past three years, he has premiered almost one hundred solo and mixed chamber works. His versatility is demonstrated in his variety of styles, which range from renaissance to romantic, from avant-garde to pop. He has studied Baroque cello and performance practice and has improvisation experience with acoustic and electric cellos. In the Pacific Northwest he is known for his performances with a variety of ensembles, including the new music ensemble "100th Monkey," a free improvisational group called "The Knotty Ensemble," a tonal improvisational group called "Confluence," and a jazz funk group called "The Freedom Funk Ensemble." In San Francisco he is known for his performances with the "New Pickle Family Circus", "Iron and the Albatross", and as co-creator of the "Starr Spectacular".
Whether drumming with avant-garde or Coltrane influenced jazz groups such as trumpeter Eddie Gale or recording his own improvisations, Andrew Wilshusen is always seeking to explore the boundaries of music. His keen ears and fluid coordination make him a drummer whose rhythms, which range from minimalist colorations to polyrhythmic tirades, always perfectly compliment his band mates while propelling them to new heights of their own. His drumming has been referred to as heart-felt, communicative, explosive, and highly imaginative.



to write a review

One Final Note, 11 January 2005

A wide-ranging disc that keeps the listener guessing as to what might be on the
Instrumental diversity or programmatic variance can be a direction that makes or breaks a record. On occasion, ambition overshadows the musical outcome, so much so that the urge detracts from its overall success. On the other hand, a varied journey can keep the customer satisfied on many levels. The San Francisco-based CKW Trio is an ambitious bunch who mix a variety of influences, both musical and cultural, and choose an unusual instrumental mix to make music that is very much in their own image. Consisting of reedist Michael Cooke, cellist Alex Kelly, and drummer Andrew Wilshusen, the trio engages in a collective effort that navigates compositions from each of their respective pens. One of the key elements of this record's success is the presence of insightful notes that bring the listener into the process by articulating influences or aims for each piece. While obviously not a novel idea for jazz or improvised music, these thoughts work particularly well and elucidate this well thought-out music. For instance, the record's opener, "Mondrian En Amérique", is inspired by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and is an attempt to reflect his "use of pure line, space, and color juxtaposition". With this in mind, Cooke's scorching tenor tone cuts thick to match Kelly's frenetic cello and Wilshusen's bustling drums for the record's most engaging moments. Following this lead, "Augmented" commences with chamberesque hues before shifting into a jaunty swing groove that pushes Cooke's soprano work. As a point of reference, the group thanks Ken Vandermark, and utilizing that inspiration, Kelly's "Alex In Wonderland" has a sense of groove that might remind some of Vandermark's Spaceways Inc. group. They are also a free-spirited bunch and "21st Century Blues" reflects this mentality, an interactive piece driven by Cooke's alto sax and the theory of circle music, a concept where "phrases can be played at any time and in any order". Non-Western sources also play a significant role. For instance, "Iram", influenced by the buried city, features a bustling, lopsided groove that fosters Kelly's dashing lines and Cooke's robust bass clarinet. Further, "[Three Headed Yogi Seal]", a free improvisation, is centered on Kelly's bouzouki and Wilshusen's tablas, inciting Cooke's leaping flute sketches. Finally, "Da Yun He" reflects an Asian sensibility, with Kelly's wiry cello lines contrasting with Cooke's bass clarinet introspection. The trio also has a flair for carefree humor, best demonstrated by their musings on a Russian circus, "R'izhii", or the album's closer, the festive "Marchin' Home". Overall, a fitting conclusion to a wide-ranging disc that keeps the listener guessing as to what might be on the horizon.

Eugene Weekly, Vol. 2004 No. 49, December 2004:

It has a truly unique sound
This San Francisco area band is made up of Michael Cooke, Alex Kelly and Andrew Wilshusen. The instrumental album was recorded earlier this year, and it has a truly unique sound. CKW Trio involves history, math, & science lessons — without lyrics — and would have made advanced theoretical physics tolerable in college!

As creative as the music is, it is surprising that the band's name (the musicians' initials) is so unoriginal. This album is not something to listen to while studying or reading. It feels good to zone in to every note and try to figure out what the music is telling you.

While listening, you might hear an exotic animal you've never seen or heard of before. You'll get the feeling it is endangered, and it has something really important to tell you. Then imagine feeling self-conscious, and getting the overwhelming feeling that you don't care what anyone thinks, causing you to run out to the street naked and dance in the fog. There is a great drum solo during "Alex in Wonderland." The album concludes with a relaxing mood, with flute playing and funky beats, and the band leaves you with an overall good feeling at the end.

Jazz Now February 2005 Volume 14, Number 10

Music that, as the title says, simply 'is.'
Three young guys out to make a mark for themselves in improvised music, the CKW Trio (Alex Kelly, cello/bouzouki; Michael Cooke, reeds, flute, percussion; Andrew Wilshusen, percussion, trap kit) try on various suits of clothing here from the cultural closet (serialism, 'cell' structure, Eastern European folk forms, mathematical structures, ethnicism, etc.). To their credit, anything the band chooses to do fits pretty well, so once they decide on a direction they'll be difficult to stop.

A certain freshness comes from the instrumentation itself: Alex Kelly's cello is often plucked like your standard bass, giving CKW a surface 'sax trio' ambience. Those go all the way back to Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard, obviously, but the cello's higher voice tone capability (as opposed to the bass') lends the music more of a 'changeling' air. Sometimes it doesn't matter how 'out of the box' the bassist plays; if you hear a bass you make certain assumptions. It's a given. It's not the bass player's fault, it's the listener's. Like a few issues of JAZZ NOW ago when I reviewed Prestige Music's THE BEST OF ERIC DOLPHY and was stunned to hear George Duvivier, who I shamefacedly admit I categorized back there with Paul Chambers and his generation, taking even Dolphy for a ride... so don't you make my mistake. Kelly's cello is all over the place like Tony Williams's drums used to be on his first Blue Note recording LIFE TIME. During "Iram," a minor outrage loosely based on Middle Eastern themes, Kelly flips out and evenly spreads his hoodoo on every level of the piece. A certain mystical air here pervades, composer Wilshusen sticking to the basics and Cooke tootling a sketchy bassoon figure. More of an air of saffron can be whiffed in track 4, the name of which I can't give you because it's from an ancient Hindi manuscript found in India which nobody's been able to translate. Cooke leaps and spirals a flute bit to Wilshusen's agile tablas and Kelly's saz-like bouzouki. Good fun, a bit 'Incredible String Band' but they've only recently got back together and won't be touring the USA anyhow. Shame. Cooke is very accomplished, now and again recalling Ivo Perelman on his many saxophones, but Cooke's command of various world forms well outstrips Perelman's, that I can hear.

The first piece on THE IS, "Mondrian en Amerique," attempts to regiment itself in sound in as 'geometric' a fashion as Mondrian's boxy depictions of line and parallelogram do, but I wonder if a trio is the right size band to try something of this sort. One may need more voices to bring it off. The overlapping instruments, when they do, here, smack more to my ear of classic serialism as practiced by Varese. I hear idiomatic structure, but it is often a case of one motif or statement following another, often in response to whatever has just been played. So not exactly, but. Maybe with a larger band this track wouldn't sound so linear.

Elsewhere, you'll get a big laugh out of the circusy klezmer-based "R'izhii," the fractured blues that explodes and recombines somewhat different ("Alex In Wonderland"), and a circular-structured tune with an Anthony Braxtonesque name (you know the drill) that swings effortlessly.

In that last, Cooke slyly quotes "My One and Only Love" despite the quantum-undulating field of notes being played around him by Kelly and Wilshusen (whose more melodic attempts on the trap kit here also delight). No, I doubt that this indicates any belief that experimental music, as the Old Guard used to say before I stopped listening to them (no names will be mentioned), "would swing if it only were played right" -- to paraphrase my 13-year-old daughter: excuse me, could we define 'right'? -- I think it's a challenge that CKW wanted to try and not unlike bassist Dom Duval's similar attempts, hit it dead on.

Still more goodies abound here, like the wintry bassoon vehicle "4+#11m6m7" or the more straight improv "Spirits," but it's like I said before. CKW clearly can go anywhere they like after this. Or they can go everywhere at once. Hard to book that trip on Amtrak, but it's doable. Try this; it's a humorous and accomplished journey into the not-too distant present. Music that, as the title says, simply 'is.'