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Bassist Scott Walton was the unifying factor in two wildly divergent presentations of "free-jazz" last night at the University of San Diego. Together with pianist Christopher Adler and drummer Nathan Hubbard, a dense, kinetic, wholly improvised set unfolded--and, with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, guitarist Tom McNalley and drummer Garth Powell tunes of all stripes were fully explored.

Christopher Adler Trio

Adler began by striking rumbling tremolos over the remarkably quiet, yet unflinching energy of Hubbard, who struck every surface of his stripped-down drumset with what looked like chopsticks. As Adler reached into the piano, Walton plucked probing lines that acted as a grounding force while Hubbard pulled a variety of small, damaged cymbals, bells and assorted noisemakers that surrounded him on the floor. Dragging his sticks along the edges of a heating-vent cover, Hubbard kept a solid clanging, knocking dust-storm of activity in the air as Walton bowed huge, mastodon low tones.

From out of nowhere, the bare bones of a groove began to surface, as the bassist pulled a crawling ostinato and Adler mixed powerful chords from his left hand to balance the Cecil Taylor-like skeins of his right. Hubbard kept the fires stoked with a constant blur of percussive motion . After a stormy duet between piano and bass, the three musicians moved toward one final tsunami of sonic caterwaul capped by Hubbard's OCD act of scrubbing his cymbals like he was trying to scrape away the shame.

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Michael Vlatkovich Quartet

Opening with dark, ominous trombone/guitar unisons, Vlatkovich blew his horn into an empty coffee can while McNalley peeled off piercing volume-pedal slices leading into the first solo, where he mixed equal parts squiggly speed with slabs of skronk. The trombone followed, suspending the motion with long, held-tones over the malleted toms of Powell as Walton raced along the fingerboard with rubbery elasticity. Powell finished up the give and take of "2 Spiders Pushed a T.V. Into The Sink," with a drum-choir swarm of ideas generated from micro-gestures.

The Ornette-ian joy of "Pickle Face Only Eats Gruel," was next, a freebop head tighter than a Republican's wallet in a vote to extend unemployment benefits. Powell got all Ed Blackwell-esque with a series of prodding tom-tom excursions as Walton broke into a stuttering gait locked into the nervous fragments of McNalley's comping--leading into a guitar solo that sounded like Tal Farlow with the d.t.'s. The group managed multiple moods courtesy Powell's astonishing control of dynamics.

Like the theme to a forgotten film-noir soundtrack, "Longshadows," unfolded like the accompaniment to a love-scene between star-crossed protagonist's, Vlatkovich spinning bluesy webs over the swirling brushes of Powell, before Walton took the baton with a storybook solo of his own. McNalley followed with reverb-drenched layers of melody to tie it all together.

A raucous, gutbucket melee burst forward with "Mr. Charisma Goes To The Dentist," sounding like the perfect theme song for a very nasty stripper, Vlatkovich blubbering and chortling on the plunger mute as Walton ground out time while Powell toggled between a simmering ride cymbal beat and an all-out percussive fusillade. McNalley continued with a wicked slide-solo that evoked a fish-fry on the planet Mars.

Impressive stuff.

Photos by Michael Klayman

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