West Stockbridge — Those in the know smiled discreetly and held onto their hats. Others — first-timers who’d never witnessed a Jeremy Kittel Trio performance — risked having their chapeaus blown into the nearby Williams River. Still others on the evening of November 18 arrived at the 1854 Town Hall in West Stockbridge just a few minutes too late and — as it was in the days of Noah — found to their eternal chagrin that the door had been shut. Kittel’s show had sold out, and latecomers were turned away.
The Jeremy Kittel Trio’s shows would be amply exhilarating if Kittel, mandolinist Joshua Pinkham, and guitarist Quinn Bachand covered mainly the standard Celtic or jazz repertories. But Kittel is a composer of music, and almost every piece his group performs is his own creation. Even on the occasional standard, the arrangement is Kittel’s, and each arrangement always represents a conspicuously original blend of genres. (“Standards,” by the way, include not only Celtic and jazz numbers but also familiar pieces by Dvořák, Bach, and other classical composers.)
If we could examine the written scores of Jeremy Kittel’s compositions, formal analysis of his pieces would be relatively simple in terms of their structure. But — make no mistake — this is highly sophisticated stuff. Kittel’s music is melodically and harmonically complex, much like a fine wine. Improvised solos conjure notes of this and whiffs of that. As fleet fingers fly, aromas of far-flung musical traditions appear and vanish like musical will-o’-the-wisps.
As you’d expect of a U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion, Jeremy Kittel is completely at home with Celtic fiddling styles. Indeed, his mastery of the genre is unmistakable after just a few bow strokes. But, as a composer, Kittel isn’t so easy to pin down. His instincts are rooted in Celtic, folk, classical, and bluegrass traditions, but a master’s degree in jazz violin had a lasting impact on Kittel’s approach to putting chord changes together. He likes to keep listeners off balance, unprepared for the next cadence. His changes tend to occur off the beat, and, of course, Kittel’s jazz studies have expanded his harmonic vocabulary far beyond that of any ordinary Celtic fiddler. When the three musicians play improvised solos over these changes, the effect ranges from the familiar to the wildly exotic. Chords may progress in an almost capricious manner suggestive of jazz, as juxtaposed solo lines enter the fray from unknown parts of the world. Even minimalism has a place in the mix. In such a mash-up of styles, anything can happen. And it never happens the same way twice.
The Jeremy Kittel Trio’s performances represent virtuosic improvisation at its very highest level, sometimes reaching a corybantic pitch, like one of Mr. Toad’s wild rides. Accordingly, savvy audience members on the night of November 18, when things got really crazy, took the precaution of firmly grasping their hats. Others may have seen their headwear blown clear of the building.