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The Joshua White Quintet performance on July 25, at the San Diego Museum of Art was standing room only -- and so powerful that some folks had to exit early. That's how I would define a success on all levels.

Trumpet virtuoso Hugh Ragin was a special guest, and his contributions, alternately soaring and whispered, represented a crowning achievement in a night of personal zeniths.

Beginning with Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," White rumbled non sequiturs in the bass register, stirring up a dizzying brew before the horns entered with languid pacing and saxophonist Gavin Templeton surfaced with liquid phrases over the elastic time-structures of bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Dan Schnelle, who engaged in an energetic tug of war with the pianist. Ragin drew the dynamics down to a hush -- initially purring impossibly high-tones with smeared and sputtered dimensions into the air.

Templeton's bass clarinet melded with Robaire for an indigo ostinato on Andrew Hill's "Tough Love," which found White nagging ideas into corners where they exploded in all directions while Ragin toggled long tones with growls and whistled filigree.

The lurching dance of "Jackie-ing," drew heavily on Schnelle's loaded martial rhythms and White swung into action with all 10 digits pouncing with blues fluency -- taking it out with gnarled repetitions rocketing into skeins of free-melodic discourse. Templeton's sound cuts like a knife and sucks the listener into his vortex, where honeyed tones become acidic as the intensity builds.

A solo piano piece is becoming a sure highlight at any White show, and this time it was a remarkable deconstruction of the pre-bop warhorse "Cherokee," which bounced from dense classical devices to abstract, clanging intervals and dervish energy in kaleidoscopic fashion.

White's original, "Curiosity Landing," was pure beauty, as the horns blended on the aching melody over shimmering cymbals. Ragin emerged first, with dark ornaments that rushed towards ecstatic spirals followed by Templeton, who veered off into a personal exploration of sculpted sound and measured velocity.

The chain-reactive energy cauldron of "The Lower Case," erupted throughout the room, and when the time was right, Ragin brought it all home with a crystal clear blues recitation that burned brightly without ever referencing a cliché. White plotted a course upstream, knifing against the current, where only his mastery of concept kept the vessel afloat and swinging towards the finish.

I wish only that Robaire had been featured, but the sound of his instrument seemed to get lost in the room, and his art is heavily dependent on his deep, singing sonority. Otherwise, a perfect evening.

Photo by Patti Fox

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