Leo Kottke's fingers flew across his acoustic guitar with determined fury. Dave King's brushes skittered atop his snare and tom-tom drums with understated artfulness. The two musicians had found a groove in their unchoreographed pas de deux.
And they knew it.
Kottke's feet involuntarily danced a jig. A blissful smile overtook King's face as he stared at the guitarist's fingers. Both players seemed oblivious to their audience at Jamf Theatre, an intimate black-box theater in Eau Claire, Wis.
Meet Minnesota's latest — and potentially greatest — super duo: Kottke, the dazzling Hall of Fame guitarist, and King, the gonzo percussionist from the Bad Plus, Happy Apple and a score of other bands.
"The Kottke King Experience!" the guitarist joked backstage after the new duo's recent gig, only their fourth or fifth together. They'll make their hometown debut at the Dakota in Minneapolis for three nights starting Monday.
Both musicians have quick but quirky senses of humor. The socks they wore in Eau Claire hinted at their light-heartedness: black-and-white horizontal stripes for the percussionist and cartoon ghosts with the word "boos" for the guitarist.
Even though they are 25 years apart in age, the musicians' personalities, funny bones and musical sensibilities have meshed.
"The first time I went over to his house, we played [music] a little bit and Dave ate some of my food," Kottke recalled. "I've stabbed people for that with my fork. But [with King] it made sense. We were cracking up."
Kottke and King did not exactly meet cute because, well, their matchmaker failed to show up. Twin Cities bassist Billy Peterson invited the two musicians to a recording session last year at Creation Audio in south Minneapolis.
"But Billy went fishing instead," Kottke recalled.
"In Montana," King interjected.
So Kottke and King just made music together and "we found out that this works," the guitarist said.
Aside from a pandemic-forced break last year, it has been a 40-year holiday tradition for the guitarist to perform in the Twin Cities at Thanksgiving time.
"For us to come together in Minneapolis, I have to say it's a sexy booking," King said with a grin that was equally happy and mischievous. "It's a couple of verbose outsider art guys finally playing a duo together."
Outsiders who are artful. Kottke plays his version of American fingerstyle guitar that owes to folk, blues and jazz, and he sings an occasional song in a baritone that he once described as sounding like "geese farts on a muggy day."
King is a versatile and sensitive percussionist who has played with jazz stars (Joshua Redman), rock stars (Jeff Beck) and local wannabe stars (12 Rods), not to mention his own groups, the Bad Plus, Happy Apple, Love-Cars and Halloween Alaska, among others. He's known for bringing a vast arsenal of instruments, including toys such as a Fisher-Price Happy Apple from the 1970s.
Kottke and King have done four or five recording sessions together and jammed in King's basement. Although he has studied his partner's many albums, the percussionist doesn't know the names of Kottke's tunes save for the vocal numbers. He'll just start vocalizing a rhythm to let the guitarist know what piece he's referring to.
At 76, Kottke feels revitalized during the pandemic. Last year, he released his first recording in 16 years, "Noon," a duo album with Phish bassist Mike Gordon. In December, Kottke and Gordon will play nine concerts together on the East Coast.
Then there's the guitarist's fortuitous hookup with King. They've got enough music recorded that they're shopping for a record label.
This year, Kottke has been juggling solo jobs (his term) — his modus operandi for decades — with duo performances.
He now finds it awkward to work solo. "It's a lot happier and a lot more fun to do this," he said backstage in Eau Claire. "It has nothing about it that isn't new for me. For an old guy who is also an old act to find something new to do … " He just beamed. "I'd like to continue this."
Like Kottke, King, 51, has been starting more than one new chapter in 2021. The Bad Plus, his acclaimed jazz trio of 21 years, is now a quartet. Pianist Orrin Evans, a 2017 replacement for cofounder Ethan Iverson, has left and been replaced by guitarist Ben Monder (Maria Schneider, David Bowie) and saxophonist Chris Speed (Tim Berne, John Zorn).
The new lineup has already recorded an album, due in May, and played a handful of gigs. It will make its Minnesota debut Dec. 25-28 in its traditional multi-night holiday run at the Dakota.
"The silver lining [of the pandemic] for me has been the rejuvenation creatively," King said. "The Bad Plus thing is a huge challenge. And this is a challenge. It's a different way of thinking. You have to be very alert."
Or let Kottke explain it in his inimitable way.
"I'm a dense player. And I don't make room for anybody. Because there's never been anybody," he said. "But with Dave, it can work."
King, who has performed with such distinguished guitarists as Bill Frisell and Julian Lage, welcomes the challenge of "playing with a master who is used to playing alone. Solo performers have a solitary language. You have to think totally different. I zero in on the inventive avant-garde nature of what he's doing. You're not just accompanying him; it's more of a classic duo situation."
Except King's presence tends to take audiences by surprise. Because everywhere except in Minneapolis, the concerts have been billed simply as "Leo Kottke."
"I know some people are nervous when they see the drums," Kottke said, "and then they're happy when they hear them."
Happy wouldn't begin to describe how the Minneapolis musicians feel about playing together. Thrilled might be more apt.
"Last night I drooled on my guitar twice," Kottke said of their Milwaukee job. "That has not happened in about 30 or 40 years. Twice. That's 'cause of him. His playing. And the spit flies out through the lights."
"I saw that last night," King retorted.
"Did you?" Kottke asked.
Bonding over 'Dragnet'
Even though Kottke is accustomed to being a one-man entourage who drives himself and his two acoustic guitars to gigs, he enjoys having a traveling companion as well as a musical one.
"We talk about being fathers," King explained. "I met his son when Bad Plus played Oakland. We talk about records, musicians we both like. He plays old radio shows, which I love. We were listening to 'Gunsmoke,' we were listening to 'Dragnet.'
"You didn't like 'The Shadow of Fu Manchu,' " Kottke pointed out.
"I was getting into some rants on the last run," King continued. "You were looking at me, like 'All right!' My COVID and traffic rants are pretty A-list."
Onstage, though, Kottke does the talking, as he is wont to do at solo concerts. It may be twisted tales interrupted by musical selections or just off-the-wall nonsequiturs that elicit laughter from concertgoers.
"That is an extension of the way he plays," King noted. "It's a fantasia of abstraction. I just hang and listen and laugh pretty hard."
Leo Kottke & Dave King
When: 7 p.m. Mon-Wed.
Where: The Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $50-$75. dakotacooks.com
Twitter: @JonBream 612-673-1719