Black Hat Records presents:

CKW Trio's CD The Is

The Is

…an indefinite suspension of the possible, the is. from “Getting Lost” by Laton Carter

     In trying to answer the question which "style" this group plays in, we might list some techniques we're 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. This CD is available for purchase on-line from from Black Hat Records, and CDBaby.

Reviews of other CDs: an indefinite suspension of the possible, Statements and Searching


Jay Collins -One Final Note, 11 January 2005:

The IS CoverCKW Trio
The Is
(Black Hat)

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.

Jim Santella -Cadence Magazine, Vol. 31 No. 7, July 2005 p. 106:

The Is features the CKW Trio in a Chamber Jazz performance that explores abstract art and its infinite supply of impressions. Michael Cooke leads the trio in a program of their compositions. Together, the threesome interprets original themes, which take the listener on a journey through faraway places. Exotic and intellectually challenging, the trio's program gives their audience much to consider. Track number 4, an adventure in free improvisation, combines bouzouki, flute, and hand drums in a Middle Eastern setting. The trio interprets spontaneously; however, their product focuses easily upon natural landscapes. Another piece uses clarinet to recall the happy hi-jinks of a Russian circus clown. Their impressionism is designed to communicate frankly and with clarity. There's no mistaking the purpose of each piece, as the trio provides a winning performance. Their session proves both accessible and intellectually stimulating. "Alex in Wonderland" revels in the Blues. Another piece uses the distinct timbre of bassoon to explore a particular tonal motif and its musical variations. Tracks number 4, 8, and 9 have symbolic titles and are not listed above.

Risa Dotson -Eugene Weekly, Vol. 2004 No. 49, December 2004:


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.

Kenneth Egbert - Jazz Now February 2005 Volume 14, Number 10

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 sad 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.'

Prem Lall - KUSF 90.3 FM:

Prem's Faves for 2005!
CKW Trio - The Is: explorations of sonic textures and non-Western music styles in the context of jazz and chamber music, the compositions on this release incorporate elements of blues, Indian music, circus music, and a variety of other forms into sprightly concoctions of sound featuring Michael Cooke on woodwinds (saxes, flute, clarinets, bassoon) and percussion, Alex Kelly on cello and bouzouki (a lute heard in Greek music, directly related to Middle Eastern lutes), and Andrew Wilshusen on drums, tablas, and other percussion; often quirky, sometimes meek, sometimes foreboding, and always engaging, each track synthesizes numerous ideas and directions into a cohesive precipitate

Alan Lawrence - Jazz Loft:

Jazz that defies catagorization!

Larry Ochs - Saxophonist and composer with ROVA Quartet:

Hey: great trio. The combination is really a good one for generating ideas and the gut guy can really play...

Craig Matsumoto - KZSU 90.1:

Free jazz with an avant-garde bent, as you can hear in the opening moments of the first track. A local trio led by Michael Cooke on sax, joined by cello and percussion.

Cooke displays a nice range. Most tracks are in a traditional free jazz mode -- that is, they're based on recognizably "jazz" compositions and get a bit daring with the solos, usually showing tasteful restraint. A few of the tracks wander into more abstract, academic territory but still sound downright friendly (#10 comes to mind).

By the way -- the name of the album is "The Is."

1- Crazy, scrabbly avant-garde: wild, with quiet spots
2- Wandering and lyrical
3- Strong midtempo led by sly low-register riff
4- Indian feel. Quiet start.
5- A quasi-Klezmer stomp, fairly fast but subdued
6- Busy, high-energy groove. Slow start.
7- Bassoon! A spritely feel, gets energetic
8- A fast burble with rubber-band cello intro and nice clarinet
9- Upbeat, stumbling swing.
10- Peppy but sparse. Brightly abstract.
11- A low-key casual groove, nice smoky feel

Thurston Hunger - KFJC 89.7:

ThereĆ­s a lot of doors into this fine release from this local trio (and once and future veterans of KFJC's pit). #4 offers an acid-folk tablet of tabla, flute and bouzouki, as welcome. as it is unique on this CD. "Mondrian en Amerique" has more complicated lines and colors than its title's inspiration, it's kinda of Clusone-y in its sawing cello and giddy spurts and stalls. On "4+#11m6m7" (known as track 7 to its friends) a bassoon goes hunting in a forest of trinkling percussion, bowed cello grows like shadows on the trees. "R'izhii" is a hobo's waltz with dixie DT's and Klezmer shakes. "Augmented" was my fave, very fluid, high register intertwined sax and cello. "Iram" pumps a spastic, avant funk nicely. On #8 Alex Kelly's slithery cello (sounding like some analog electronics oscillating wondrously) connects a more fiery beginning to passages with chinese gong and sweeter pondering's from band and label leader, Michael Cooke. While Cooke is the obvious sonic focal point, Kelly's wildcard nature is what I think elevates this band. The letter Wand assorted batterie are provided by Andrew Wilshusen, his talent is as an empath between the other two gents. I could see him adding touches of electronics to the mix as well. This ain't "Was" jazz, enjoy the evolving "Is."

Dr. Brad Stone - KSJS 90.5:

We've enjoyed your CKW Trio recording very much.

Taran Singh - Radio-G:

Thanks a lot for your latest Cd "The Is." It's great. surpasses all expectation.

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