Mostly Coltrane, Entirely Kuhn

Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor, Jazz Police
Monday, 19 October 2009

Once a sideman for John Coltrane and protégé of Bill Evans, pianist Steve Kuhn has been a virtuosic performer since his first gigs around Boston in his early teens. His lengthy and distinguished discography as well as collaborations with Kenny Dorham, Stan Getz, Art Farmer and Steve Swallow notwithstanding, he remains somewhat under the radar in the U.S. His long affiliation with ECM Records may account for his popularity in Europe, but his talent alone should be sufficient on this side of the Atlantic. Mostly Coltrane, his new release with working trio mates David Finck and Joey Baron and special guest Joe Lovano, pays homage to his eight-week run with the late sax legend in early 1960.

Unlike much of Kuhn’s ECM output of largely original repertoire, Mostly Coltrane is, indeed, mostly Coltrane, and a set that extends well beyond the brief period of Kuhn’s affiliation. The seeds of the recording came from an annual series of birthday salutes to Coltrane, led by Lovano over the past five or so years at Birdland, featuring Coltrane’s early 60s Atlantic repertoire as well as his late, more experimental period. But the more direct impetus was an appearance of the Steve Kuhn Trio at the 2008 Baltica Festival in Salzau in Northern Germany, where Lovano was artist in residence. “So they arranged that the trio would do a concert by itself, and then there would be a concert with Joe that would feature essentially the music of John Coltrane. That’s the genesis of that particular quartet,” explained Kuhn in an interview for ECM producer Manfred Eicher recognized the opportunity, and ultimately brought the quartet into the studio in New York in December 2008. In addition to the nine Coltrane compositions, the recording includes two pieces Kuhn played with Coltrane (“I Want To Talk About You” and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”), and two written by the pianist, a spontaneous tribute (“In Gratitude”) and an earlier tune, “Trance.”

Tribute albums often fall into the easy trap of imitation, yet that never seems to be an issue for Steve Kuhn. Until the Birdland sessions, he had played very little of Coltrane’s music over his career after those remarkable eight weeks in 1960. Notes Kuhn, 71, “I worked with John in 1960, almost fifty years ago, and although his influence carries over to this day, and always will, of course, there really was no conscious effort to emulate… It’s just the way it came out…Joe Lovano is obviously influenced by John, but also he plays the way he plays… I’ve played these pieces at Birdland for the last five or six years, and I play them the way I play them, with whatever voice I have. I’m interested in what he wrote, but the curiosity pretty much ends there. I think what I recorded is reflective of John, of course, but it’s also reflective of what I am doing these days.” It’s this attitude that makes this not only an atypical tribute-to-a-legend album, but a uniquely personal interpretation. Kuhn only sounds like Kuhn, Lovano only like Lovano, even to the degree that he sticks with tenor rather than switching to Coltrane’s choice, the soprano, save one track where Lovano uses the Hungarian reed, the taragato.

Like another who has uniquely interpreted Coltrane, pianist Marilyn Crispell, Steve Kuhn can create stunning music with a mere single line, as he does in introducing the opening “Welcome.” It could not be more welcoming as Lovano joins in with his own ethereal phrasing over subtle bass and drum accompaniment. Kuhn then weaves a magical verse, setting the stage for the sweet interaction with Lovano that follows. It’s an opening prayer for a mystical suite.

“Song of Praise” adds layers and raises the tempo, Kuhn’s off-kilter passages giving Lovano a launching pad for this incantation (first recorded on Coltrane’s 1962 Live at the Village Vanguard). The trio swings under Kuhn’s ebullient interpretation-his touch and articulation might whisper Evans, his harmonic imagination might hint at Tyner (even at times suggesting at least two pianists on the loose), but there’s an abstract complexity that denies the former, a softer attack that refutes the latter. Lovano sustains a melodic undercurrent, not Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” but his own twisty modal explorations. With Finck’s assertive counterpoint and Baron’s storm and splash, it all merges into a glorious recitation.

One of the most familiar Coltrane compositions on this recording, “Crescent” starts out with Kuhn’s chiming introduction in support of Lovano’s mournful tenor. The pianist’s exquisite passion slides over a similarly reverent Baron, a delicate song without words. With hollow mallets pounding, the drummer rises higher in accompanying Lovano, two soloists in tandem. Kuhn introduces “Living Space,” yielding to Lovano to worship at the alter of Coltrane as the service is constructed by the trio. Finck’s dark tones create an undertwo of awe, while Baron’s turbulence adds a sacred tension. “Central Park West” is one of Coltrane’s most lyrical compositions, here a stunning piano/sax duet. Relatively brief at under four minutes, the track is long enough to showcase two imaginative artists who display as much reverence for each other as for their muse. (What about an all-duet album?)

Finck leads into the swirling delight of “Like Sonny,” suggestive of Middle Eastern markets and shifting sands. Lovano’s agility plays well against Baron’s often subtle, sometimes brightly assertive percussion. Kuhn’s lively solo is mirrored by Finck’s upbeat, extended statement. Sounding decades removed, (dating from 1967), Coltrane’s fiery “Configuration” starts with Baron soloing aggressively, soon joined by Lovano at his most abstract and exploratory, the duel pushed further by Kuhn’s sweeping ascents of dissonance. Baron finishes the experiment with one of his few explosive moments. From Stellar Regions, “Jimmy’s Mode” finds Lovano paying tribute to Coltrane without releasing his tether on form. Finck’s solo provides a fitting prelude to Kuhn’s “interstellar” journey, while Baron paints in translucent watercolor. Lovano returns, singing high praise as Kuhn retreats with deepest bass notes. The soprano-like pitch of Lovano’s taragato flavors “Spiritual” with a wistful soul-searching, Kuhn adding some of his most assertive musings. While a thumpy Baron takes no prisoners, Lovano’s second solo segment is triumphant, assured of its destination.

Of the two standards, Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You” features Kuhn’s gentle, cleanly articulated phrases, Baron’s cymbals rising and receding like an ocean tide, while Finck provides an elegant pulse. This ballad highlights the sympathetic collaboration among Kuhn’s trio, as Lovano sits this one out; surely he enjoyed just listening. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” starts with an abstract conversation between Finck and Kuhn that soon dissolves into the familiar film theme, the pianist’s jaggedy rhythm and uptempo engaging Finck and Baron in another trio tour de force before Lovano joins the frey halfway in. And it is a grand and boisterous entry, an exhibition of the saxophonist’s more straight-ahead flights of fancy and slippery gymnastics. Kuhn seems particularly inspired here, dancing around, over and under Lovano’s lines, swinging all the way.

Two solo compositions from Steve Kuhn complete the set and provide “new and old dreams.” “With Gratitude” was improvised in the studio, its rich and mildly dissonant harmonies presented in a gracefully linear homage that grows in complexity over its three-plus minutes. The closing “Trance” is a reconsideration of Kuhn’s 1975 ECM title track. A Chopinesque tapestry, silken threads are woven and braided; strings, harp, and woodwinds are all expressed through the keyboard. The most definitive melody emerges late before dissolving in a shimmery, delicate finish.

Alone, in trio, or in quartet with a collaborative soulmate such as Joe Lovano, Steve Kuhn manages a tribute eloquently befitting John Coltrane without losing the unique musicianship that has informed his long career. While his brief stint with Coltrane provided the material and inspiration for Mostly Coltrane, this new release is nevertheless “Mostly Kuhn,” further gilded by the partnership with Lovano, Finck and Baron. One can hope that this quartet will seek other opportunities to come together.

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