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Spotlight Project: Kait Dunton trioKAIT Casual
Anticipating the sequel to their acclaimed debut, Dunton and her genre-defying trio take a new spin on tunes by No Doubt, John Coltrane, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers on trioKAIT Casual
With the release of their self-titled debut in 2015, pianist Kait Dunton’s trioKAIT introduced a modern spin on the piano trio tradition, reimagining the acoustic piano-bass-drums line-up for a generation raised with their iTunes permanently set to shuffle. Ever since that category-defying album was met with near-universal acclaim, earning enthusiastic write-ups from Downbeat and Jazziz and a spot on The Huffington Post’s “Best of Jazz for 2015” list, forward-thinking jazz fans have been eagerly awaiting the trio’s follow-up album.
trioKAIT Casual is not that album.
With Dunton hard at work on a new set of original material for the upcoming trioKAIT 2, the pianist and her close compatriots – bassist Cooper Appelt and drummer Jake Reed – take a diverting detour through eight cover tunes, running the gamut from jazz and Brazilian standards to unexpected ‘90s pop songs. In Dunton’s ingeniously eclectic hands, radio hits by the likes of No Doubt and the Red Hot Chili Peppers fit comfortably beside classics by John Coltrane and Erroll Garner, each reinterpreted with the same blend of emotional connection and gleeful irreverence.
Working musicians will recognize the term “casual” as referring to an impromptu side gig, a chance to get
together with like-minded musicians, leave the burden of envelope-pushing and innovating at home, and have fun playing some familiar tunes. trioKAIT Casual has much the same feel, albeit with the deeply intuitive telepathy that the L.A.-based trio has forged together. Into that mix they invite a rotating cast of special guests, including in demand session and soundtrack guitarist Andrew Synowiec, Venezuelan-born percussionist Aaron Serfaty, Prince trumpeter/arranger Philip Lassiter, and veteran woodwind master Bob Sheppard, whose credits range from Chick Corea and Freddie Hubbard to Steely Dan and James Taylor.
“Live, we often add these tunes for fun or as an encore,” Dunton says. “In L.A. the music scene here is really diverse, so it’s meant to show that we have all these different influences. People play rock tunes, pop tunes, Brazilian music - it’s not the hardcore jazz scene that it is in New York.”
A former member of the extended clan of Brooklyn-based fusionistas Snarky Puppy, Dunton is no stranger to juggling stylistic influences on stage. In a sense, trioKAIT Casual serves as a Rosetta Stone for trioKAIT’s boundary-blurring sound, the spectrum of material offering a revealing explainer for the band’s mix of virtuosity and groove, accessibility and intensity. !
The album opens with Dunton’s take on No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,”simultaneously making an unlikely argument for Gwen Stefani as a contributor to the Great American Songbook while keeping the song’s essential infectiousness intact. Along with the Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge,” the trio reveals a healthy nostalgia for their teenage years in the 1990s (also represented on the album cover by a pink “splat” echoing the Nickelodeon logo).
The trio’s soulful take on Michael Jackson’s “The Lady in My Life” becomes an inadvertent tribute to Thriller co-songwriter Rod Temperton, who passed away in October, just weeks before the album’s release. In the same vein is the moving rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” that closes the album.
John Coltrane’s oft-performed “Giant Steps” seems almost out of place in this context until one hears Dunton’s arrangement, which meets the pop fare halfway – where those songs are made richer and more complex, Trane’s immortal standard takes on an airy, approachable looseness. Their version of Erroll Garner’s familiar “Misty” goes even further, with Philip Lassiter’s synths and production elements turning the jazz classic into a Top 40-ready dance tune. Jobim’s “Wave” transplants Latin percussion to a street corner groove, while Michel Legrand’s “I Will Wait For You” is swathed in sweeping, romantic woodwinds courtesy of a stellar quartet of guests.
While this off-kilter collection of inspirations might offend the more conservative elements of the jazz
cognoscenti, Dunton – never one to adhere to any definable label – shrugs off such criticism. “Traditional jazz
musicians would play pop songs of their day, so it’s weird that we’re still playing the pop songs of the ‘40s and
the ‘50s. We should be playing the pop songs of now while also reflecting on some of the classic stuff.”
Given Dunton’s track record, it’s impossible to predict what 2017’s trioKAIT 2 has in store. trioKAIT Casual,
though, might provide a peek into her creative process and a clue into the kinds of influences that she might bring to bear on the trio’s true sophomore release. Its cover art certainly does, depicting the trio in a state of well ordered disarray, a whirlwind of sheet music, comfortable clothes, handy instruments and empty bottles that suggests the clutter of work in progress. It’s an enticing glimpse of the future as well as being a joyful snapshot of the present.