Steve Kuhn: Promises Kept (ECM 1815)

Promises Kept

Steve Kuhn
Promises Kept

Steve Kuhn piano
Krista Bennion Feeney, Elizabeth Lim-Dutton, Richard Sortomme, Karl Kawahara, Barry Finclair, Helen Kim, Robert Shaw, Carol Pool, Anca Nicolau violins
Sue Pray, Vince Lionti, Karen Ritscher violas
Stephanie Cummins, Richard Locker, Joshua Gordon celli
Carlos Franzetti conductor
David Finck bass
Recorded June and September 2002 at Edison Studios, New York
Recording engineer: Gary Chester
Assistant: Yvonne Yedibalian
Remix and mastering by Jan Erik Kongshaug and Manfred Eicher at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Recording producer: Arthur Moorhead

Promises Kept is something of a watershed moment in the career of pianist Steve Kuhn, who sees the album as the fulfillment of a lifelong wish. Kuhn has always been known for possessing a keen ear for sonority, but here that trait is expanded by the string ensemble—with arrangements by Argentine composer Carlos Franzetti—into which he christens his steadfastly original vessels. Because at Kuhn’s fingertips the piano acts more like an orchestra, the appearance of strings feels less like an addition and more like an audible manifestation of what his playing already holds dear.

Connections to classic ECM sessions abound, including Remembering Tomorrow, Motility, and Playground. Yet their reconstitution here feels like an involution rather than an evolution. This is by no means a bad thing; it lends insight. The pianism of “Lullaby” is thus melodically fortuitous and ushers in the assembly as if by a benevolent emperor’s hand—which is to say, with robust yet gentle authority. “Life’s Backward Glance” is the quintessential Kuhn tune, a touchstone of the pianist’s repertoire making here its fifth label appearance. The piece’s inner sanctum is water-colored one beam at a time in hues of cello and double basses. It welcomes Kuhn at its center as the sun to a planetary system, forming through quiet fission a divine connective tissue across space and time. This tells the story of his relationship to music perhaps better than any other.

“Trance” references the 1975 album of the same name. Whereas in that version the theme seemed almost to leap from a dream fully formed, here the eyes open slowly after a farther-reaching intro from strings and carry in their reflective surfaces most of the music’s weight in strings hammered, not bowed. Another vital moment in Kuhn’s compositional development, it showcases his lyric sensibilities—as does the album as a whole—without kitsch, sugar, or sap. We do, however, get a sprinkle of “Morning Dew” to whet our appetite for natural wonder. This newer tune spreads its sparkle as widely as the wind floats pollen. Its companion is the title track, a memorial to Kuhn’s parents that heaves with a palpable mixture of mourning and gratitude, and faithfully traces the undulating trajectory of grief.

As if the preceding weren’t contemplative enough, “Adagio” clears the slate and writes love letters to Introspection with a capital “I.” In this self-imagining, Kuhn speaks his craft into being through wordless language. Likewise, “Celtic Princess” communicates in images and impressions. The painterly feeling is as light as the touch of brush on gesso. The keyboard’s array of colors lends believability to the emerging scene. And just when the sheer magnitude of this beauty has grown unwieldy, “Nostalgia” enlivens the proceedings in its own unusual way. It wanders with no other purpose than to wonder, to appreciate the privilege of putting feet to dirt, to swim the “Oceans In The Sky” that follow with whispers and propelling strokes. The winds of change are as powerfully represented here as they are quelled in the concluding “Pastorale.” If the album’s initial stirrings were an awakening, let this be the promise of slumber kept, for it is only in the embrace of a dream that Kuhn’s sound-world reaches fullest vibrancy.

The end effect is one of jazz under a magnifying glass, given shape through the beauty of close attention in both the playing and the listening.

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