Local pianist and composer Jeff Kowalkowski has consistently demonstrated an easy fluidity between experimental music, contemporary classical, and improvisation, and that mutability might be one of the main reasons he isn’t recognized more widely—people don’t know where to put him or his music. That’s a shame, because he’s one of the most beguiling and interesting performers in Chicago, whether he’s making wonderfully strange sounds with Carrie Biolo in Jack the Dog, playing as sideman in Rob Mazurek’s Electro Acoustic Exploding Star Orchestra, or heading the Chicago Scratch Orchestra, an experimental music ensemble he founded in 2010.

Kowalkowski just released a fantastic new album called (Trio) (New Atlantis), which finds him leading an excellent trio with bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Avreeayl Ra, and showcases his abilities as jazz pianist. He composed all nine alternately pithy and thorny pieces, and they allow the group great creative leeway, from the puckish Monkisms on the opener, “Pattern Cycle,” to the kaleidoscopic spinning figures punctuated by the deft rhythm section on “Finale Allegro.” He freely draws on his deep knowledge of classical music in both his compositions and phrases—to say nothing of the harmonies—but Ra and Bankhead never let the forward propulsion and polyrhythmic thrills lag, giving the music a perpetual push and excitement. This trio has been performing together sporadically over the last couple of years, and clearly they were locked in when they entered Todd Carter’s Belair Studio last November: they anticipate one another’s gestures with an almost telepathic grace, prodding but not stepping on each other, and functioning as a well-oiled ensemble. Below you can check out “Symphonic Leap,” one of the more pensively beautiful pieces on the album, and one that makes clear the leader’s classical training.


Today’s playlist:

Ian Matthews, If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes (Water)
Jerusalem Quartet, Janácek/Smetana: String Quartets (Harmonia Mundi)
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam)
Imarhan Timbuktu, Akal Warled (Clermont Music)
Jesper Zeuthen, Plus (Barefoot)