Steve Kuhn Trio: To And From The Heart

To And From The Heart.jpg

To And From The Heart, the latest on Sunnyside Records from pianist Steve Kuhn’s trio with electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Joey Baron, is a walking tour of dreams. By its guidance, we are led through one scene after another, each a step out of time. Two of the most fully rendered among them are by Swallow. “Thinking Out Loud” unfurls the set’s welcome mat into a sound so warm and inviting it feels like we’ve just stepped into an intimate jazz club. That the trio has a long performing history to its credit only adds to the live atmosphere. Such comfort as that expressed here can only come with age and experience.

In both this understated groove and “Away,” a bright and easygoing swing, Swallow’s solos are natural extensions of his comping and vice versa. Kuhn likewise stirs his own compositional palette with the concluding medley of “Trance/Oceans in the Sky.” From a sailing piano intro, it navigates rolling waves to dock on shore, where Swallow leads a long walk inland to Baron’s spotlight monologue, wherein he compresses an entire landscape into its first blade of grass. Along the way, into their joyous circle the trio welcomes Michika Fukumori’s “Into the New World,” a sunlit field dotted with Kuhn’s expository footprints while also throwing in a couple of standards—not only for good measure, but also to measure the good. Where Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” balances elegance and humility, as epitomized by Baron’s scintillations and Swallow’s robust detailing, Jay Livingston/Ray Evans’ “Never Let Me Go” shows Kuhn to be one who understands that melodies aren’t made to be broken but stretched until one can see through them. When music is this good, this nostalgic yet forward-thinking, it can only be a matter of fate.

(This review originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Steve Kuhn Trio: Wisteria (ECM 2257)

Wisteria

Steve Kuhn Trio
Wisteria

Steve Kuhn piano
Steve Swallow bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded Sptember 2011 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Tim Marchiafava
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist Steve Kuhn, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Joey Baron make sweet music together, for sure, but an unquantifiable feel for that music is what sets this dream trio apart, and nowhere so clearly as in the lion’s share of Kuhn’s tunes presented on Wisteria. The complexities thereof become more readily apparent in these core settings. Above all, “Adagio” reveals a triangle within a triangle within a triangle. First is Baron’s sparkling pool, next bordered by Swallow’s equilateral bassing, all molded by Kuhn’s resounding redraws, and with a multi-dimensional sound enhanced to crystalline effect by engineer James Farber, fewer geometries could be more sublime. Further gems last heard on Promises Kept include the study in contrasts that is “Morning Dew,” the lyrical “Pastorale” (then again, when is Kuhn not lyrical?), and that album’s title cut, which achieves here even greater densities than in the former’s orchestral couch.

Wisteria is not without its groovier moments (cf. “A Likely Story”), but tends toward the softer end of the spectrum whenever possible. This only serves to gel the intensity of emotion throughout. Exemplary in this regard is the album’s opener, “Chalet,” in which the trio’s mesh sets a unified tone. It also reveals the inimitable presence of Swallow, whose early solo unlocks much of the joy about to ensue, and whose two contributions—“Dark Glasses” and “Good Lookin’ Rookie”—span the horizon from solemn to ecstatic, sunset ochre to raindrop blue, with class.

Three standalone tracks complete the set. Carla Bley’s “Permanent Wave” lays on the nostalgia so thick that you’ll swear you heard it a long time ago, with a drink in hand and only a memory to keep you company. “Romance” (by Brazilian singer-songwriter Dory Caymmi) brims with blind affection and proves yet again just how masterfully Kuhn approaches the art of the finish. And then there is the title track by Art Farmer, in whose band Kuhn and Swallow played half a century ago. This shadow-swept reverie says it all with so little.

Wisteria is about as positive as jazz gets. So much so that one can feel the smiles rippling all around as one pebble after another is dropped into the sacred font of improvisation from which each of these musicians so artfully drinks, and with enough tenderness to go around for even the most resilient soul.

(To hear samples of Wisteria, click here.)

Steve Kuhn Trio w/Joe Lovano: Mostly Coltrane (ECM 2099)

Mostly Coltrane

Steve Kuhn Trio w/Joe Lovano
Mostly Coltrane

Joe Lovano tenor saxophone, tarogato
Steve Kuhn piano
David Finck double-bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded December 2008, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As John Coltrane’s original quartet pianist for eight weeks in the early months of 1960, Steve Kuhn is as qualified as anyone to assemble a fitting tribute to one of jazz’s eternal gurus. Despite his monumental significance in the field, ECM has reckoned with the Trane only sporadically—first on Dave Liebman’s Drum Ode and, most recently before this record, on Trio Beyond’s Saudades. Mostly Coltrane is, however, more than homage. It’s just as importantly a full-fledged portrait of the musicians bringing this music to renewed life. Saxophonist Joe Lovano has no pretensions of mimicking the man by whom 10 of the album’s 12 tunes were written or made famous. Bassist David Finck and drummer Joey Baron—the other sides of the Steve Kuhn Trio’s equilateral triangle—complete the group’s finely interwoven sound.

Kuhn, in that way he does, unpacks his solos one breath at a time, so that the considerations of “Welcome” offer a soft mapping of the road that lies ahead. Lovano is at the peak of his sentimentality, while Baron dances around the beat—Paul Motian in disguise. Lovano further threads the needle of “Song of Praise,” in which he tightens his grip on the higher notes like a dancing bird, touching wind one feather at a time until both wings sing in concert.

Kuhn may be the emotional center of the record, but his special sense of ebb and flow allows the crests of his bandmates to glint in the moonlight just as vividly. Lovano is irresistible in his luxuriant, chromatically infused takes on “Central Park West” and “Like Sonny,” while Baron provides gentlest uplift to his tarogato (a nod to Charles Lloyd?) in “Spiritual.” Other highpoints include two of Coltrane’s posthumous tunes: “Jimmy’s Mode” and “Configuration,” the former of which boasts an introspective solo from Finck, while the latter staircases its way into brilliance.

The two made-famous tunes—“I Want To Talk About You” and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”—are another remarkable pair. One traces its theme in retrograde, exuding sensuality in a trio-only setting. The other is a brisker tune in which the rhythmic section works a gorgeous telepathy, Finck the heartbeat of it all. Into this fray swoops Lovano like a bird who flies for sheer enjoyment, giant yet light on his feet. Marvelous.

Two more of a distant pair, this by Kuhn, rounds out the set. “With Gratitude” finds the composer solo, singing a song of dedication through his fingers. “Trance,” also solo, brings us full circle to his first ECM release of the same name, looking back in a rolling wave of light, thus signing off on a statement as timeless as the music it embodies.

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.

Steve Kuhn: Remembering Tomorrow (ECM 1573)

Steve Kuhn
Remembering Tomorrow

Steve Kuhn piano
David Finck double-bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded March 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Fans of Steve Kuhn are sure to recognize many of the tunes on Remembering Tomorrow, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this intimate date with bassist David Finck and drummer Joey Baron is a mere retread of the past, for in the present trio setting the music shines afresh, fertile as fields after summer rain. And despite what the somber cover photograph would have you believe, the results are dynamic, intense, and uplifting. Sure, we get the lustrous, dreamy wash of “The Rain Forest” and “Lullaby,” kisses on the forehead to sooth our agitation. And there is the rather sober version of “Trance,” morphed from its optimistic progressions into Baron’s splashes through murky waters. Another tender reconsideration: “Life’s Backward Glance,” which blossoms with the full crystalline breadth of the assembled forces. But then there are groovier excursions like “Oceans In The Sky” and “All The Rest Is The Same.” Baron, in his second ECM appearance, tickles these and more with astute wit. Finck, for his part, remains happy to spin the fuselage to which Kuhn attaches his wings. The title track does indeed throb with the power of recollection, casting nets into a complicated past and pulling from them one spiritual thread that sings. Kuhn’s exchanges with Finck in “The Feeling Within” are the hallmark of this set’s most touching moments, while “Bittersweet Passages” finds the pianist uniting with Baron in a delicate crucible. The product is an eye of “Silver” that closes under the sands of sleep.

Kuhn’s magic is his touch, his feeling for stories warm as breath. He inhales with the lungpower of a choir, exhales with the veiled subtlety of an orchestra hanging on a pianissimo chord. Let these dandelion seeds fly and follow wherever they lead.

Steve Kuhn Quartet: Last Year’s Waltz (ECM 1213)

Steve Kuhn Quartet
Last Year’s Waltz

Steve Kuhn piano
Sheila Jordan voice
Bob Moses drums
Harvie Swartz bass
Recorded live, April 1981, at Fat Tuesday’s, New York City
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Robert Hurwitz

Last Year’s Waltz has everything a great live jazz album should: a present feel, gobs of atmosphere, and, oh yeah, Sheila Jordan. Right off the bat, interplay from Bob Moses and Harvie Swartz kicks us into wakefulness in “Turn To Gold.” Gilded by Kuhn’s indeed alchemical but always punctual pianism, this dose of smoothness is sure to please. Kuhn brings a montuno flavor to “The Drinking Song,” which is deepened by Jordan’s diaristic musings, both expository and speculative, and boasts enough woops from her band mates to keep our blood at a constant boil. The title track is a languid trickle that quickly crackles into a melodious and cinematic punch bowl. The key to unlocking the set’s inner secrets is “The Fruit Fly,” which, in both title and execution, evokes Chick Corea’s blissful optimism. Downright wondrous pianism and omnipotent drumming make this the instrumental standout (the solo piano “Medley” runs a close second). Kuhn works his magic through “The Feeling Within,” weaving a luxurious carpet for Jordan’s vocal footsteps. Two standards—a decidedly upbeat rendition of “I Remember You” and the virtuosic scat-fest that is “Confirmation”—and the bittersweet yet crowd-pleasing tune “The City Of Dallas” (Steve Swallow) complete this living portrait of a group in its prime. As the recording fades, members of the crowd shout, “More!”

I second that.

Not only does Last Year’s Waltz show us Jordan at her best, but its explosive energy and archival importance make it by far Kuhn’s finest quartet joint of the 80s. A reissue is a must.

“Music We Order Our Lives To”: The Masters Quartet Live Report

August 20, 2011
Birdland
8:30 pm

Steve Kuhn piano
Dave Liebman saxes
Steve Swallow bass
Billy Drummond drums

A brief dictionary perusal of the word master yields variations on a theme of dominance: one who uses, controls, even disposes of that which is mastered. It’s with this hierarchical vision of mastery in mind that I entered the hallowed doors of Birdland for a late-summer performance by The Masters Quartet. None could earn such a title, of course, without verifiable skills and the countless hours necessary to hone them. As longtime collaborators, Kuhn and Swallow are strangers to neither, having made their first recorded appearance alongside Liebman on the bassist’s 1979 debut, Home, with over a decade’s worth of friendship and gigging already between them. Listening with eyes closed, one could hardly guess that Carla Bley band regular Drummond is a relatively new addition to this veteran nexus. Their blend was so seamless that by the time I stepped out into the humid streets, dominance was farthest from my mind.

To be in the presence of all four was already an honor, but the venue made it exponentially more so. This being my first Birdland experience, I finally understood why Charlie Parker dubbed it “The Jazz Corner of the World.” From its candlelit murmur, non-invasive wait staff, and intermittent tick of silverware to its top-flight roster, carefully considered sightlines, and one-on-one feel, the setting was ambiance incarnate. Though nothing remains of Birdland’s original digs, one can glimpse those glory days in the monochrome gallery of talents that adorns its walls. All the more reason, then, to bask in the present, where four incomparable musicians filled our ears with concoctions both pungent and smooth—not unlike the French martini at my fingertips—as they took to the stage and eased us into the evening’s intensities with a pair of trios.

A lush opening surge as only Kuhn can elicit swept this heart away in the standard, “There is No Greater Love.” With a sigh and a smile, he made us feel part of the band, creating music simply by bearing witness to its spontaneous unfolding. Through peaks and valleys, Kuhn navigated every turn of Swallow’s unshakable bass lines and the cymbal-happy squint of an ecstatic Drummond. The latter’s locomotive rolls opened a lyrical path for Swallow before kicking up a bit of dust as he exchanged jabs with Kuhn. His increasingly frenzied snare, along with Swallow’s leapfrogging bass, wound us into a state of high expectations. Thus did these gentle beginnings feed a dancing conflagration which, rather than brazenly overstepping those expectations, passed lithely through them like ghosts.

A milky intro stirred us into the coffee-like consistency of “Dark Glasses” (S. Swallow), resolving itself into a galactic swirl. With organic care, the music loosed ribbons of bass amid Drummond’s delicate knocking. Kuhn’s Möbius strip of a solo titillated (as a tongue, it would have rolled every “r”) and brought us ever closer to the filmic imagery lurking therein. Like its titular accessory, this joint at once clarified and obfuscated, cutting out the glare while hiding choice secrets.

“All the Things That…” (D. Liebman) marked its composer’s entrance to the stage. Inspired by the standard “All the Things You Are,” this smooth excursion was a prime vehicle for that oh-so-sweet soprano. With the magic of a mirage shimmering into shape, it showed us a level of tonal acuity that one can only dream of producing. Drummond provided sympathetic response, matching each of Liebman’s calls with joyful paroxysms of his own. Such were the beauties that awaited us also in “Adagio” (S. Kuhn). Here, Liebman’s slide into resplendence fogged our view with a long exhalation. Meanwhile, Kuhn tumbled in careful somersaults, marking the swaying rhythm that caught this listener from the get-go. Swallow traced a wide embrace with an engaging solo turn that seemed to welcome us all into its arc.


(photo by Manuel Cristaldi)

We were then treated to an unfailing rendition of “Village Blues” by John Coltrane, a “mentor to us all” as Kuhn so respectfully noted before its trio intro buttered our bread like nobody’s business. This proved a solid launching pad for a dramatic color shift as Liebman’s tenor awoke from its slumber. It, too, spoke in wooden riddles and guttural dreams, but those gritty squeals layered on the sonic paint—Van Gogh to his soprano’s Monet—and added a new dimension to surrender. His blows were softened only somewhat by Kuhn’s detasseling pianism, diving instead into an epic exchange with Drummond.

For the standard, “My Funny Valentine” (the “romantic highlight” of the show, as Kuhn artfully quipped), we were back to the smoky grain of soprano. Here the pianist’s poetry shone at its brightest, dissolving into lute-like strains of bass, as if in watercolor.


(photo by Robert Lewis)

Liebman’s robust tenor then inscribed “A Likely Story” (S. Kuhn) onto the pages of our attention. Against a grounded bass line and deep piano digs, he was lively and on point. Kuhn held a steady clip across his tightropes, tethers to an inspiring synergy with Drummond, who dotted the sky with sparks as this log was cast onto the evening’s kindling. I couldn’t help but note how “keyed in” Liebman was as his fingers mimed on the sax during a sit-out before he dove back in for the final splash.


(photo courtesy of the Montréal Gazette)

Mastery revealed itself in many guises throughout the show, but chiefly by the adroit ways in which the group always held fast to the tightly wound spring that thrummed at the heart of every tune they played. Their thematic cohesion was due in no small part to Swallow, who electrified with his unparalleled anchorage and fluid anticipations. Kuhn, ever the picture of concentration, threaded each of his needles with mindful improvising, those unmistakable octave splits crying with such epic grace that captivation was our only option. With every run of his fingers he seemed to travel miles’ worth of emotional distance. Against such broad pointillism, Liebman’s richness came across as filamented, teetering on edge, and all the more visceral for it. He was every bit the vocal performer, untangling seemingly impossible knots in a fraction of the time it took to tie them. As for Drummond, he seemed to squeeze every last drop of soul from the most delicate gestures, treating each as a gig in and of itself. He positively stole the show in its final gasps.


(photo by Albert Brooks)

In short, the quartet put the “band” back in “abandon” and proved yet again what for me is the blessing of jazz, an art form that makes the immediate effects of improvisation feel as if they have been growing inside us all along.

Furthermore, I discovered that true mastery bleeds from art into one’s countenance, one’s approachability as a human being, one’s humility offstage. In other words, it is nothing without the light of graciousness that permeated each of these four men, their loved ones, and the fans in attendance. In the end, their performance might very well have been but a flash in New York City’s overcrowded pan, but their afterimages are safe with me.


Autographed CD of last year’s gig, purchased at the club

Steve Kuhn: Non-Fiction (ECM 1124)

 

 

 

Steve Kuhn
Non-Fiction

Steve Kuhn piano, percussion
Steve Slagle soprano and alto saxophones, flute, percussion
Harvie Swartz bass
Bob Moses drums
Recorded April 1978 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Steve Kuhn is the all-purpose element: his presence heightens any musical concoction. Like no jazz pianist I know, he is aware of the negative spaces between his notes and shapes those spaces to suit the emotional needs of the tune. And what a set of tunes we have in Non-Fiction, a sorely out-of-print firecracker in dire need of a digital fuse. Speaking of conflagration, nothing singes our brow in any Kuhn project quite like “Firewalk,” which, despite its characteristically spacious feel, is clear and present (I bow to the uncredited engineer on this one). Kuhn accolades aside, it’s the sopranism of reedman Steve Slagle that really sets these coals to glowing and cradles every assured step in the liberation of play. Bob Moses and Harvie Swartz—an ideally suited rhythm section if there ever was one—lock the “Random Thoughts” that follow into lively traction. Slagle opts for flute and alto sax over a constantly shifting sonic palette. Whenever he isn’t breathing, he keeps his hands busy with additional percussion. (Unfortunately, the latter comes across as intrusive to my ears during headphone listening. External speakers will remedy this.) “A Dance With The Wind” and “The Fruit Fly” reverse the scales with a collective dose of whimsy and nostalgia. Swartz is simply fantastic here, weaving deftly through Kuhn’s canvas of vamps with distinct yet harmonious brushstrokes of its own. If anything has been missing so far, we find it all collected in “Alias Dash Grapey,” which has it all: a sweeping piano intro, replete with unrestrained cries from Kuhn, a spirited collage of solos (Moses ever palpable), and a deep sense of communication.

 

This is a tight album with plenty to unpack through repeated listening. Its energies fluctuate in volume, but always to the beat of Kuhn’s erudite dictation. As worth tracking down on vinyl as it is waiting for an appearance on CD.

Steve Kuhn: Life’s Backward Glances – Solo and Quartet (ECM 2090-92)

 

Steve Kuhn
Life’s Backward Glances: Solo and Quartet

Steve Kuhn piano
Sheila Jordan voice
Steve Slagle soprano and alto saxophones, flute
Harvie Swartz double-bass
Michael Smith drums
Bob Moses drums

In an open boat at sea,
lights are darkened by a tree.
All the world is all I see.

Brooklyn-born pianist Steve Kuhn is one of the savviest interpreters of our time. On ECM, we have also been fortunate enough to know him as an equally engaging composer. For this entry in its Old & New Masters series, the label gathers another fine trio of out-of-print treasures, of which Motility and Playground make their digital debuts (ECSTASY having been made limitedly available in Japan).

Motility (ECM 1094)
Recorded January 1977 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Entering Kuhn’s world is indeed like stepping into “The Rain Forest,” the first track on this phenomenal quartet recording. Not only is it visually resplendent and rich with life, but it also boasts distinct melodic qualities. Every last molecule has its role to play in the symphonic superstructure. Kuhn’s fingers navigate the forest’s ever-changing paths, arching lithely through overgrowth while Steve Slagle’s flute sings like an avian guide flitting from branch to branch: a thread of cognitive continuity between listener and the listened. The band’s sound really opens up in “Oceans In The Sky.” Like a waterfall in reverse, it returns to the cloud from which it was born, closing its eyes in a promise of clearer days. The private trajectories of “Catherine” intersect only briefly with our own, even as Harvie S.’s tenderest of bass solos pulls at the heart in muted song. “Bittersweet Passages” is a two-part journey, beginning in a swell of anticipation before fading into solemnity. The slightest movement becomes infinitely magnified, so that when the quartet returns in tutti, it bustles like a crowd of zealots flocking to their monument of worship. “Deep Tango” is driven by a braid of martial snare, bass, and soprano sax, beneath which Kuhn spreads carpet of fallen leaves. “Motility/The Child Is Gone” changes from elegy to ode in a blink. Kuhn lays on the expressivity, at once van Gogh and Monet, before delighting us with “A Danse For One,” in which one can almost hear his band mates lingering like a ghostly presence. Lastly is “Places I’ve Never Been,” another exciting tune replete with infectious grooves. Superb soloing from all, particularly in the diving flute, make this one a winner.

 


Original cover

Playground (ECM 1159)
Recorded July 1979 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Robert Hurwitz

In this album, we get an enlivening dose of Kuhn’s other brand of lyricism in the form of actual words. We had a taste of these in “Life’s Backward Glance” on 1974’s Trance. That selfsame tune makes a cameo here, also as a closer, only this time transformed by the throaty contralto of Sheila Jordan Kuhn, who turns everything she touches to melancholic gold. This is a markedly different album, not least because it is the latest of the three, and one that seems to have been consciously sandwiched between the others.

As Jordan turns verses in her lips in “Tomorrow’s Son,” she traces the undulations of bass and brushed drums, setting off the piano into a string of footnotes. Two adjacent pieces, “Gentle Thoughts” and “Poem For No. 15,” appear as the diptych “Thoughts of a Gentleman – The Sage of Harrison Crabfeathers” on ECSTASY. In their present incarnations, Kuhn’s pianism scintillates, his right hand so full that when his left hand comes in it sounds like another instrument entirely. The rhythm section is never enough to weigh him down. Rather, it seems to inspire him to ever-ecstatic heights. A personal favorite on this disc is “The Zoo,” a fantastic little slice of whimsy about communication, self-sufficiency, and delight in discovery. And one can hardly escape the allure of “Deep Tango,” which in this vocal version unfolds with even greater narrative potency.

Jordan’s voice strolls down memory lane as if it actually were a physical path to be strolled upon. Her constant vibrato lends a vulnerable sadness to the proceedings. The musicians feed off her presence tenfold, as evidenced in Kuhn’s transformation throughout from intimacy to fantasy.

 


Original cover

ECSTASY (ECM 1058)
Recorded November 1974 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album was recorded one day following the Trance session, and revisits some of that same material in a solo setting. In spite of the density in which his playing often clothes itself, here he adopts a decidedly porous sound, breathing in and out like an organism that finds its invisible nourishment in notecraft alone. The present rendition of “Silver” is three times its original length on Trance, honed in reflections rather than shadows. An unexpected roll from the piano’s nether regions rises like oil from the ground, but never materializes into a full-blown breach, lapsing instead into a gentle trickle into the valley of resolution. Unique entries on this album include the entirely improvised “Prelude in G,” in which an increasingly frantic lead runs over a brooding ostinato, and “Ulla,” an emotional journey marked by careful pauses. Some insistent statements in the right hand lead one to believe there is far more to be said than what is being articulated in both. Kuhn ends again with “Life’s Backward Glance,” something of an iconic piece for him, here more erratic than its vocal counterpart. It reads like a critical self-assessment, born from years of improvisatory living, finding in the moment those truths with which we build an ever-changing concept of the self.

This is the darkest of the three albums, gilded in dissonant color schemes and more visceral reflections.

 


Original cover

Kuhn thinks in voices, but speaks in images. His story is a book without pages. Oftentimes, he looks away, but always acknowledges us through its colors. One moment finds him courting Vince Guaraldi on steroids, while the next recalls Bill Evans on a rainy afternoon. With such a full sound, one wonders how other musicians could add anything, but add they do, and beautifully so. The only thing missing now is you, the constant listener.