Improv Ingenuity

The music of the MTKJ Quartet burns from the fires of creative spontaneity.

Trumpeter Kris Tiner is waxing esoteric, describing how he and his partners in the Mears/Tiner/Kikuchi/Johnson Quartet play free jazz.

"It is more like the liquid in which everything is kind of coming together and creating this improvisational fabric, and within that flow, there are cues for notated material, and you can create layers of musical compositions where things can be stacked and layered on top of each other, sometimes with two different compositions being played at once."

Pretty heady, right?

But it's easy to cut some slack to the 25-year-old Tiner. Even over the phone during an interview from his Los Angeles-area digs, Tiner's hungry enthusiasm and obvious joy for the music is apparent.

And if it sounds as if he studied the stuff in grad school, it's because, well, he did.

And the fact that the MTKJ Quartet's music is the shit--as exemplified on the group's debut CD, Who Knows the Wicker Man? (Little Green Records)--helps mitigate some of the muso theorizing.

Invoking the spirit of Ornette Coleman's groups in the 1960s and Anthony Braxton's knotty compositions of the 1970s, the music of the MTKJ Quartet burns. That most of it is created, from one degree to another degree, through improvisation makes it an example of well-stoked spontaneous combustion.

Tucson jazz fans can hear for themselves when the MTKJ Quartet plays Saturday night at the Mat Bevel Institute. The concert begins the seventh season of the Zeitgeist Jazz at the Institute series. (See the accompanying article for details about the rest of the season.)

Like two of his bandmates, Tiner has earned a master of fine arts degree in African-American improvisational music (which is basically an academic term for free jazz) from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif.

At CalArts, they studied under the esteemed trumpeter, composer and bandleader Wadada Leo Smith, a veteran of the legendary Chicago jazz consortium Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Since 1965, the AACM has been the fertile ground that has sprouted many a creative force in jazz music, including Smith and Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Leroy Jenkins, among others.

Smith took his talents to CalArts 10 years ago, where he was the first appointee to the Dizzy Gillespie Chair. He runs the improv jazz MFA program, which, says acolyte Tiner, is "pretty much one of a kind."

Wadada Leo Smith's program is unique because, "It is one of the only programs in the country directly dealing with improvisational music, in the sense of it being a stream coming out of the jazz tradition," Tiner says.

Further, the well-respected CalArts program is "about not only dealing with improvisation, but looking at new ways and approaches toward writing music for improvisation. It's a matter of coming at music in a more systematic way. ... Also, there's a big emphasis on interdisciplinary projects that incorporate film, dance, visual art and spoken word."

CalArts brought the members of the MTKJ Quartet together. Tiner, saxophonist Jason Mears and drummer Paul Kikuchi are recent graduates of the program. Bassist Ivan Johnson just completed his bachelor's at CalArts. As one might guess, the musicians all are in their mid-20s.

While these musicians had many opportunities to play--together and with other collaborators--on the CalArts campus, they also began to moonlight away from school. They haunted improvisational-music nights at clubs in nearby Los Angeles.

Improv is alive and well in the City of the Angels, says Tiner: "There are at least five major series in L.A., alone."

Reaching out a little further, this past March, the guys hit the road for a West Coast tour, the result of which is Who Knows the Wicker Man?, which is available so far only at live dates.

A new recording will be available soon, too. It's a "best of" live recording of the tour dates in March, Tiner says.

He adds that the MTKJ Quartet will see the release of its first major label album in 2004. "I can't say anything about it, because it's between a couple of different companies."

The players in the quartet have studied or played with such free jazz icons as Vinny Golia, Milford Graves, Charles Gayle, Charlie Haden and Gerry Hemingway. Tiner says he and his bandmates tread a fine line between respecting their musical elders and trying to create their own thing.

While they realize they aren't reinventing the wheel, neither are they about aping the music of their forefathers, he says.

"We're not doing anything new. But we are using the examples of Leo Smith and all these guys. We're doing our own version of it. ... We're using their approach and not copying their sounds."