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"Having the most fun with weird time signatures since Dave Brubeck began experimenting with odd meters a half-century ago, The John Funkhouser Trio is having the time of its life celebrating its new, aptly titled CD, "Time." Funkhouser, whose diverse musical influences range from the time explorations of Brubeck and Max Roach to the pianistics of Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, leads his trio in selections from "Time" that run quite smoothly on such fractious fractions as 13/8, 7/4 and 9/2. His partners in time travel are bassist Greg Loughman and drummer Mike Connors. More than just a gimmicky display of time warps and warped time signatures, the Funkhouser Three improvises fluently over a shifting array of time signatures, 7/8, 6/8, 5/8, or whatever.

Thanks to its conversational, playful style, the trio also swings as well in traditional 4/4 time with its tasteful selection of classic ballad material that comes out sounding equally bold, cohesive and fresh. An eclectic who's at home with jazz, world music, American popular music and European classical music, Funkhouser has a degree in music theory from Cornell and a master's degree in jazz piano, bass and composition from the New England Conservatory.

Degrees aside, there's really nothing rigidly academic about his playing, whether he's improvising on a classical fugue form, raising cain with arcane time signatures or stretching out on an atmospheric interpretation of Harold Arlen's "Come Rain or Come Shine."

Other warm ballad capers include "On Green Dolphin Street" and a lovely, introspective reading in 7/4 of Arthur Schwartz's "Alone Together." As the new CD's title implies, the resourceful trio's focus is on demonstrating the varied ways of swinging with grace and ease on tricky time signatures.

Here, for example, is how Funkhouser describes in his liner notes what goes on in his original called "Ellipse," a piece that, he says, "had its genesis as a math experiment": "In the initial section, the left hand of the piano plays a pattern in 5/8; the right hand plays a pattern in 7/8. These two patterns converge on the 35th beat and repeat. The bass melody is in 6/8 with the sixth bar in 5/8 to make it come out to 35. The drums play a more complex 35 beat pattern. The improvising section is all in 5/8." If all that sounds like what George W. Bush might call "fuzzy math," rest assured that it all comes out sounding unfuzzy and fine, 100 percent free of all math anxiety.

Sure, Funkhouser's bold experiments in time could have wound up sounding like lame mental gymnastics, mind-numbing metronomic exercises strictly meant to impress anal-retentive academics. But it's not that way at all, as Funkhouser proves with his fun and funk-filled, meter-mad piece called "Eleventy One." (Tolkien fans may recognize the title's allusion to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who put on the Great Ring at his eleventy-one (111th) birthday party and disappeared, never to be seen in the Shire again.) A magnum opus de Funkhouser, the earthy "Eleventy One" grooves hard in 11/8. It even gets down in the downhome party mood of "The In Crowd."

It might seem aridly mathematical on paper, but on disc it's loose and juicy, not the least bit formulaic. This mix of quality and accessibility represents Funkhouser's basic credo, which is to make challenging music that a generally knowledgeable or interested listener can understand and enjoy.

"I've always gravitated to artists who go off the beaten path a little bit," he explains. But at the same time, I made a conscious decision to make music that people would want to listen to. A lot of avant-garde music is made for the initiated, the people already in the know."

Owen McNally, Hartford Courant, March 2010


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