In conversation with steve kuhn
By Ted Panken
Raised in Brooklyn and Boston, and a hardcore New Yorker for a good chunk of the ‘60s, pianist Steve Kuhn now lives removed from the fray, in a still-not-quite-exurban town on the east bank of the Hudson River, one hour by train from Grand Central Station. This being said, Kuhn is a not-infrequent visitor to the metropolis, training down the Hudson to attend to his various gigs, recording sessions, and publicity obligations. So it was that Kuhn, a jazz lifer since the ‘50s, appeared at ECM’s midtown offices in late July to discuss his new recording, Mostly Coltrane [ECM], on which he and his touring trio—bassist David Finck and drummer Joey Baron—join tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano for an exploration of Coltrane repertoire from two periods of his development—the cusp of the ‘60s tunes that generated Coltrane’s still-beloved Atlantic recordings and very late, contemporaneously unissued pieces—that are not customarily juxtaposed.
Apart from the unfailingly creative musicianship and collective orientation on display therein, Mostly Coltrane—gestated over several years of Lovano-convened Coltrane birthday homages at Manhattan’s Birdland—is intriguing because Kuhn’s unique relationship to the material, to which he has more palpable connection than any living pianist other than McCoy Tyner, a fellow 1938 baby. Already an established figure on the New York scene before Herbie Hancock , Chick Corea , and Keith Jarrett  hit town, Kuhn spent an epiphanal eight-week run with Coltrane in May and June of 1960. As Kuhn relates below, the Mostly Coltrane project also marks an attempt to close a circle, a re-immersion in a corpus of music that so fundamentally impacted his sensibility.
How did this album come together? How did you arrive at the notion of revisiting repertoire by John Coltrane that you had played and also material that you hadn’t?
Every year for the last five or six years, around John’s birthday, which is September 23rd, we do a week at Birdland to commemorate him—Joe Lovano, myself, Lonnie Plaxico (sometimes Henry Grimes is added), and Andrew Cyrille, sometimes with Billy Hart. Some nights it’s a sextet with two drums and two basses; some nights it’s just a quartet. The repertoire was the earlier Coltrane as well as the later Coltrane, and I really had no idea about the later stuff. I didn’t listen to him much once after ‘64-‘65, once he started just getting out there, for lack of a better phrase. I also had moved to Sweden around that time...
You moved there in ‘67, I believe?
I moved there then, and he passed in ‘67. Anyway, Joe Lovano is responsible for bringing in the later pieces.
So every year, we would do this tribute to John. Then, pretty much a year ago this month, I had a tour in Europe with my trio, with Joey Baron and David Finck, and one of the stops was the Baltica Festival in Salzau, in Northern Germany. Joe was going to be there. It was a saxophone theme last year, and he was sort of the 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.
A little bit before that concert, I met with Manfred Eicher. He’d heard about the annual Birdland thing, and, surprisingly, he told me that he would like to record this music. Now, knowing Manfred as I have for the last thirty years or more, I’d think this would be the last thing he’d be thinking of. In any event, he said he’d like to record the concert at Salzau, or to go into a studio in Germany right after the concert—which was impossible for me, because we were on tour, and was impossible for Joe as well. So it was decided that we try to do it in New York, and it all came together in mid-December of last year, 2008.
We went into the studio for a couple of days, and did this repertoire, which consisted of some earlier Coltrane stuff and a couple of standard songs that I had played with him but were not written by him—“I Want To Talk About You,” Billy Eckstine, and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” which was a movie theme. The rest were Coltrane songs except for two solo pieces that I did. One I did spontaneously, called “With Gratitude,” which of course is an homage to John. Manfred also asked me to do a song that I wrote many years ago called “Trance,” which I had never recorded solo.
Prior to 2004-05, when this annual performance of Coltrane’s music began, had you been performing Coltrane’s music or any of the tunes...
No, other than “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” occasionally—very occasionally. After I left John and went with Stan Getz in 1961, and he would feature the trio every set, usually, in clubs that we’d play in, or concerts. At the time, the drummer was Roy Haynes and the bassist was Scott LaFaro, until Scott tragically passed; after that, there were a number of different bass players—Tommy Williams, John Nieves. I would play “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” quite a bit on those featured solo pieces within each set. But other than that, and occasionally with the trio in years since, I haven’t played any of John’s music. I’ve been asked to, but for some reason, I don’t know... Maybe I’d do a solo on “Naima” or something like that. But I just didn’t do it. Then this annual Birdland thing came along, and it started from there.
So the Birdland project seemed attractive to you at the time that it was proposed.
Yes. In a way, it seemed like a chance to thank John, or be part of something that I was briefly a part of, in terms of the history of his groups, and at the same time to revisit songs that we had played. When I was with him, we were doing a lot of the repertoire from Giant Steps and some other songs from around that time. But as I said, I never played any of John’s later compositions, so I had no idea how they sounded, how he recorded them. In a way, it was probably just as well. I just brought whatever I brought, and no real frame of reference.
Was the sequencing and arc of the album something you were thinking of from the beginning? Did Manfred Eicher have a fair amount of input?
Manfred did it all. He’s great at that. When he’s into the music, and he really likes the project, he’s an incredible producer—the best I’ve ever worked with, really. He has a sense about these things. He put together one preliminary sequence, then spent some time with it in Munich, and then sent me a CD test pressing with a sequence that he had thought of, and he asked if I had any strong objections to anything. It seemed to work fine. It was all his.
Coltrane’s quartet from 1960 to 1965, after you left, apart from the energy and the content of the music, had a very specific sound. In the matter of interpretation, particularly with the songs you’d previously played, was there any sense of the prior versions, or your prior interpretation, hanging over you?
For me, no. Whatever frame of reference was deep in my subconscious. 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 or to avoid certain things. It’s just the way it came out. As for Joey Baron, it’s tempting to fall into the Elvin Jones rhythmic feeling, which I don’t think Joey did at all. He plays the way he plays, which is incredible. David Finck may not be as versed in that particular era. He’s a little bit younger. But essentially, he just was in the ground of it all, and I thought he did extremely well. Joe Lovano is obviously influenced by John, but also he plays the way he plays. So to me, the homage was there, but in terms of style or conceptually, there was no plan to do anything to emulate.
I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of your recordings, but I have a lot of your records and I’ve listened to most of them, and I can’t remember too many things on them that resemble the late Coltrane repertoire that you perform here. Can you speak to your relationship to that approach to music, and setting up a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation of those pieces?
The first I’d been aware of 'free playing,' without any harmonic basis, just more or less getting sounds on the piano without any key centers ... Well, I’d been playing around with that for years, and did much more of it when I was much younger. Prior to the time that I worked with John, and afterward, to a certain extent, I was certainly influenced by the music of John Cage, and the post-12-tone composers. It was part of my growing-up, as it were. In later years, I’ve come back more to the standard songs that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, a pretty wide repertoire of them, while playing them in way that I think has my imprimatur (if that’s the word) on it as much as I can, not consciously, but from playing them over a period of years. I also have a bunch of originals, some of which can sometimes reflect that kind of freer playing. I have some songs where the harmony is stagnant for as long as the solo lasts, or, there is no harmony, and then that kind of playing more or less comes into effect. On some of John’s later things, I was able to play those freer things, with no harmonic ties whatsoever, just effects and the interaction between the bass and the drums, and also with Joe. That’s just part of the way I grew up; I was influenced by a bunch of different kinds of musics.
I’d like to talk about those things a little later. But let’s stick with the recording. Right before I came here, I pulled out Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane ...
He came over to the house yesterday. For a lesson, of all things.
... and he cites an interview that some people did with you in 1995 about your stint with Coltrane. I know you’ve been asked this eight million times, but take me through how you came to join the group.
It’s a story that, as you’ve said, I’ve told a lot. There isn’t much to it. I came to New York in the fall of 1959. I graduated from Harvard—miraculously, I don’t know how. I got a B.A. in Liberal Arts. Then I was given a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts during that summer, August 1959, and had a chance to hang out for three weeks. George Russell, bless his soul, who passed yesterday, was on the faculty. The Modern Jazz Quartet was on the faculty. So were Gunther Schuller, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Herb Pomeroy. It was incredible. And the students! Ornette Coleman was a student. Don Cherry was a student. Gary McFarland was a student. I got to meet all these people, and 'study' with them. I remember spending a couple of hours just talking music with Bill Evans, and he had some specific things that he wanted to talk about, and that was very helpful to me. Max Roach was there. In any case, each of the teachers had splinter groups, and I was assigned to a group with Ornette, Don Cherry, myself, Larry Ridley on bass, and a trombone player named Kent McGarrity (if I’m not mistaken), and a drummer named Barry Greenspan (I think he opened a drum store somewhere). I’ve not seen Kent or Barry in ages, but Larry occasionally, and I have seen Ornette in just the last year. Of course, Don has passed. But that was the student group, and our leaders were John Lewis and Max Roach. So there was a first-hand exposure to Ornette. Frankly, I didn’t know what to do when he was soloing, so I just laid out, which seemed the most logical thing to do. John Lewis, bless his heart, said, “You can’t play chords.” I said, “I know. That’s why I’m not doing anything.” He said, “Why don’t you do sort of what I play behind Milt?” He was playing these single-finger, single-note little counterpoints behind Milt. But I never really cared much for that. I just thought Milt swung his ass off all the time, and it was sort of counter-productive to that. So I did it a little bit, just to placate him, but I wound up just not playing, sitting on my hands, while Ornette and Don played. To this day, I would probably do the same thing. I would enjoy listening to him, but I wouldn’t know what to do behind him. Now, if it came time to my solo, then that’s another story.
I really was reluctant to come to New York. I was intimidated by the whole thing, but I really felt this was something I had to do. My father, bless him, from Boston, where I was living, drove me to New York and checked me into the Bryant Hotel on 54th and Broadway. I proceeded to call everybody I had known prior—people I’d met while I was a student at Harvard and at high school in the Boston area, and also the different people I had met at Lenox just a few weeks before. As it turns out, one of them was Kenny Dorham, and he needed a piano player, so he hired me maybe two or three weeks after I got to the city. We worked in a club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, called the Turbo Village, which was a funky-ass club with an upright piano—but I was delighted. I was completely happy about that. It was a quintet with Charles Davis, playing baritone at that time; Kenny; the bassist was Butch Warren, who is an extraordinarily gifted bassist who has had some issues over the years; and the drummer was Buddy Enlow, who I believe has passed.
That group recorded for the Time label.
Yes. I had recorded a couple of other things prior to that, but basically that was the first recording-recording that I did as a sideman in New York when I got there.
So I was with that group, and then during that period of time, in late 1959, I heard that John was leaving Miles’ group and was looking to put together a quartet. Now, I am basically kind of quiet and shy, but somehow I got his number, and I called him. I said, 'I know you don’t know who I am. I am currently working with Kenny Dorham. I would love it if we could maybe get together sometime, or just talk about music, play a little bit, and meet,' and like that. After maybe a week or two passed, I got a call from him. He’d apparently called Kenny and asked around, and heard that I was supposedly this talented new kid in town or whatever. So he called me at the hotel, and we met in a studio in midtown Manhattan about three or four blocks from the Bryant, on Eighth Avenue somewhere, a studio the size of the postage stamp. It had an upright piano in it, a couple of chairs, and that was it. We sat and talked and played; we played some of his songs from the Giant Steps recording and talked for a couple of hours, and that was it. I went back to the hotel; nothing was said yea or nay about working together.
Then maybe a week or two later, he called me again at the hotel and asked me if I would come out to Hollis, Queens—take the subway to where he lived. He was living with Naima at the time, and their daughter Syeeda, I guess. So I went out one afternoon, and we essentially did the same thing, just sat and talked about music. Nida, as he called Naima, cooked dinner, and then he drove me back to the Bryant Hotel. Again, said nothing, nothing really of any kind of commitment, yes or no. Again, a week or two passed, and the phone rings in the room, and I answer, and he said, 'Steve, this is John. Would $135 a week be ok to start?' Now, at the time I was making $100 a week with Kenny Dorham, so just for that alone it was ... But the fact that he wanted to hire me, I was just over the moon. That’s how it started.
He had, I believe, a four-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery down on St. Marks Place, and at the beginning of May we started to work there. It was six nights a week, and he kept getting extended two weeks at a time. I think eventually he was there 24 to 26 weeks straight, which is unheard-of. You never hear of that any more. Business was great, and everybody was talking about him. I was with him for probably 8 weeks, and then McCoy joined. But that was the genesis of how it all came about.
When had you become cognizant of Coltrane?
Certainly when I was living in Boston and going to high school in Newton, Massachusetts. I had bought Miles quintet records that he was on.
They came out when you were a senior in high school.
Not before then?
He did those records in 1955 and 1956.
What records did he do before 1955?
Very few. With Johnny Hodges then. He did a few things with Dizzy Gillespie, playing alto.
Well, then, I was a senior in high school, and through college. I stand corrected. But I had heard all the stuff he did with Miles, and even at the beginning, when I could hear the reeds, the squeaks, and all that, I could see that this man was incredibly talented, and was different. He captivated me completely. So I listened to everything that came out with him on it, and also some of the things he started to do as a leader. So when I came to New York, I had a pretty good knowledge of the recordings he’d done up 'til then.
Yes. Kenny Drew also, on Blue Train.
What were the challenges for you in playing with Coltrane at the time? You were 22, and you were fairly experienced. You’d played clubs, played piano for a number of major soloists, like Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickinson, and Chet Baker, and as well as straight-ahead jazz, you knew modern classical music, done the time at Lenox School—a well-seasoned, well-schooled pianist with a jazz sensibility. The challenges in dealing with this information in 1960.
I was looking for my own voice, of course. I was somewhat cocky in those days, because I’d had a lot of press when I was living in Boston—the wunderkind. I was playing when I was 13. I was working at Storyville, up there, playing solo piano. Then I was working at a club in Boston called the Stable, which had the best of the New England musicians, and some great people came through there. I was working there with Herb Pomeroy’s sextet at times, and playing intermission, or solo piano, as it were. So I’d gotten some good press in Boston, and I came to New York sort of full of myself. In any case, as I said, I started working with Kenny Dorham, and then to work with John, part of my ego just couldn’t ... I couldn’t resist going along with that. But I was brought down pretty quickly.
When I started to work with John, I really didn’t know what he wanted. In the more or less straight-ahead music, I was comping behind his solos, but then he was also starting to do things like 'So What' [or 'Impressions'], which had one or two harmonies through a whole song, and gave you a chance to stretch out a lot harmonically. At times, instead of comping, or laying down the carpet for John, I would get out there with him, not to try to challenge him but just to make him push himself further, and maybe stimulate him musically. That probably was not what John wanted, but he could not articulate that to me. I asked him from time to time, because I had a sense ... I wasn’t happy with my own playing. I was looking for my voice, and trying just to find a way. From night to night, one night I might be more pleased than others, but generally I was not too thrilled with what I was doing. So I would ask periodically, 'John, is there anything you’d like me to do that I’m not doing, and vice-versa?' I’ll never forget this as long as I live. Every time, he said, 'I cannot tell you how to play. I respect you too much as a musician; I cannot tell you how to play.' That’s all he would say. I mean, he never spoke much anyway; he was very quiet. So I tried and I tried.
A couple of times during that 8-week period, I wanted to give my notice, because I just was not happy with what I was doing. When the time finally came that he told me he wanted to make a change, despite the fact that I had thought about leaving, I was crushed—more for my ego than anything else, probably. Now, at the time he hired me I did not know that he wanted McCoy right from the beginning, but that McCoy had a contract with the Jazztet, with Art Farmer and Benny Golson, and he couldn’t get out of it until the time when John said to me, 'I want to make a change.' Had I known that before, it would have been fine. Any chance ... if I could work with him one night, it would have been worth it. And we were working six nights a week, so it was pretty intense.
Three or four sets a night probably, back in 1960.
At least three. I don’t remember. But it was a lot of playing. I remember during those weeks, Ornette would come on intermissions, and hang out with John. Or Sonny Rollins. It was a hive of activity, with great players coming in, and the energy in the room was unbelievable. After John would solo, people would literally get up out of their seats as if it were a revival meeting in church or something. The energy, the reaction was extraordinary, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Certainly, up to that point, I’d never experienced anything like that.
This was with Pete LaRoca on drums and Steve Davis on bass.
Yes. I was the first of that quartet to leave. Then Elvin joined. Then Jimmy Garrison came on.
You arrived in New York at a time when new ideas were percolating, as has been described in a number of recently published books and articles, partly impelled by marketing imperatives—i.e., the fiftieth anniversary of Kind of Blue and so on—but also for valid reasons. Ornette Coleman hit New York in 1959, Mingus was in one of his most fertile periods, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian spent two months in a Greenwich Village club before recording Portrait in Jazz, Lennie Tristano was doing long residencies at the Half Note, Max Roach was doing things. The poets. The dancers. The artists. So many things were happening in Greenwich Village and all around New York. Give me a sense of the milieu.
I remember going out to clubs every single night, just to hang out—occasionally, I was asked to sit in. The Bryant Hotel was just across the street from the original Birdland, so I went there quite a bit, and after a while they got to know who I was, so they didn’t charge me at the door. I would sit in the bullpen area or stand at the bar, and had a chance to listen to a lot of people—I wound up working there a bit, too, with Kenny Dorham and Stan Getz and other people over the years.
But it was a very intense time in the jazz world, as you described it. That kind of scene that no longer exists, unfortunately for a lot of young players who come to town. I bemoan the fact, for their sakes. We had sessions every night. There were loft sessions. There was a baritone saxophone player, Jay Cameron, who had a loft, and there was a session there every night of the week. So you could always go up there and play, and you’d meet all the guys who were in town, the new people coming in. That’s how you networked and connected. It helped me a great deal. At that age, you wanted to play all the time, every day.
By the way, just to touch on it, I never felt any black-white racial thing at all. I think John hired me because he thought I could play. Kenny Dorham hired me because I could play. There was no real line there at that time—this unfortunately changed in the mid ‘60s, after the revolution, or whatever you want to call it. But when I came to New York, if you could play, fine. The temptations and the other things were always there, too, more so than they are now, with the substance abuse. I managed to stay fairly clear of that, although I did have some issues—but for the most part, I managed to avoid that. But there was a lot of camaraderie at the time with people who were strung out; those people hung out together, they would get high together and all that. I was on the periphery of that, although at different times I got into it briefly. There was a myth that you needed to be high to play, to create your solos, but I found that to be completely fallacious. I tried playing high a number of times, and I thought I sounded like shit—and I’m sure I did. There’s a tendency to play chorus after chorus after chorus, and it gets really boring, not only to the musician (perhaps—unless he’s so stoned, he doesn’t know), but certainly, I would think, to the listener. Over the years, I’m sure that’s dissipated to a great extent.
But it was this very special time. And living at the hotel put me in the middle of the midtown activity, and I would be also be in the Village a lot. So a lot of stuff was going on, good and bad, but mostly productive.
Do you feel you were a different player at the end of your time with Coltrane than you were before joining him? Or is it hard to ascertain that given how brief a time it was?
It really is hard to ascertain. I’m sure it helped shape whatever voice I have today. It definitely impacted that. As I said, I was dissatisfied about how I played with John. I was working with Kenny prior to John, and after I left John I went back to Kenny for another year, and those questions never came up. But with John they did, because there was a lot of searching, trying to stretch the parameters of the music, which is where my insecurities or whatever came into play. With Kenny, it was basically the meat and potatoes. I learned a great deal from him in terms of how to comp and voicing chords, and also getting the exposure in the different venues that we played throughout the country. But the repertoire was pretty straight-ahead. With John it wasn’t. That was really the main difference.
Then you were with Stan Getz from approximately 1961 to 1963.
It was two years all told, but there was an eight-month hiatus in between when he broke up the band. Originally, it was Pete LaRoca, Scott LaFaro, and myself. Then Scotty wanted to leave, and Stan asked why? Well, it was because Scotty wanted another drummer. Scotty was something else. So Stan said, 'Who do you want?' Scott said, 'Roy Haynes.' So, P.S., that’s ... Stan was a big fan of Roy’s anyway.
Well, Roy was on those 1950-1951 Roost recordings.
Yes. So that was the group until Scott was tragically killed in the summer of ‘61. Then Stan hired John Nieves, a bassist from Boston, whom I had known, of course, growing up there ...
Playing with Scott LaFaro and Roy Haynes in a rhythm section, were you able to be interdependent in a similar way as Bill Evans and Motian were with him?
We played more straight-ahead, I think, with Stan, but we did some trio stuff. He opened up my ears a great deal rhythmically—and Roy was and is unique in his approach to the drums, and an incredible soloist as well. When Stan had returned from living in Sweden, he called Scott and asked him to put together a trio—he wanted him to join. Scotty said, 'if I can get the trio I want.' Initially, it was Pete LaRoca and myself, as I said. So we met Stan at the Village Vanguard afternoon and played with him, and he hired us all just like that.
So working with Scotty and Roy was different, but within parameters that I felt somewhat comfortable with. It was very enjoyable to play with them.
You used the phrase 'meat and potatoes.' Since these days standards comprise a consequential component of your musical production, I’m wondering who your early pianistic influences were in jazz.
For me, Art Tatum is God, as Fats Waller said. To this day, nobody comes near what he did—for me. Certainly, the way I play, it’s probably hard to hear the tie. At times, maybe it isn’t. His sound, his harmonic sophistication, and his swing was unparalleled. By himself. He didn’t need a rhythmic section. In fact, he was better off alone. The recordings that he did by himself, to this day ... Just a few weeks ago, I heard something I hadn’t heard in a while. What he was able to do was just astounding, He really grabbed my attention big-time, and more so over the years.
Fats Waller was an influence, too. The boogie-woogie pianists—Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Pinetop Smith. I used to play boogie-woogie years ago, and I loved it. It was a welcome relief from playing the classical repertoire that I grew up playing; I started studying when I was 5 years old, I guess. So the boogie-woogie pianists, some of the swing pianists, and then I was influenced by a while by Erroll Garner, who I thought was incredible, to do what he could do. Bud Powell was a big influence. Lennie Tristano, to an extent. I appreciated intellectually what he was doing, but he never really touched my heart the way Bud did. Red Garland was an influence. Wynton Kelly was an influence.
Bill Evans was an influence. I was at Harvard the first time I heard Bill play, on a concert with George Russell at Brandeis University. I heard what he was doing, and I said to myself, 'Oh, shit. He’s doing what I’m trying to do, but he’s got it together.' That really caught me by surprise, and it took me a bit to get past that.
Can you be more specific?
It was very thoughtful playing. It was fairly sparse. He had a great sound on the instrument. It was more of an intellectual approach, but it touched my heart at the same time. It was a combination of both. For me, the bottom line in communicating music is about touching the heart. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not about how fast you play, or how slick you do this, or how you re-harmonize that. But there was a similarity in our playing before I had ever heard him, and then I heard what he did. I think maybe I swing more, or swung more than he did, in that I was more influenced by the Bud Powell's and the Wynton Kellys and the Red Garlands, but I appreciated what he was doing—it was certainly in my DNA, as it were, things that he was doing that I could relate to.
Those are the main people. After Bill, I think that was it, in terms of influence. Bill was an influence in other ways, too, because I had a chance to meet him, and he was like a big brother to me when I came to New York. He was very helpful and encouraging, and times when I was depressed, and woe is me, and why me ... When I came, as I said earlier, I had been the wunderkind, and now I no longer was. I had the experience with John, which was great, but I was let go (even though he wanted McCoy from the beginning). It was hard. It’s a hard life. To this day, it’s a rough way to live.
You have to have a very thick skin.
Absolutely. You’re putting yourself out there, and you have to accept it. Whatever. Try to get work, and you don’t have a big enough name ... You just have to persevere. If it’s in your heart of hearts to do it, as I tell kids all the time, then go for it. You’ll know at some point whether this is what you want to do, or you’ll capitulate and do something else—which is fine. But if it’s in your heart of hearts, you’ll do it.
Now, your prior ECM release, Promises Kept, on which you framed your piano with a string ensemble arranged by Carlos Franzetti, got quite a bit of press at the time. Apart from Franzetti’s remarkable orchestrational abilities, it presented you in a way that represented another aspect of your formative years, i.e., your extensive classical training and your training with Margaret Chaloff. Since your years with Gary McFarland, and certainly since the ‘70s, you’ve brought forth both aspects of your musical personality.
Sure. It’s all part of the package.
You’ve stated that Margaret Chaloff had a tremendous impact on who you became as a musician.
Absolutely. She taught me the Russian school of technique, and it took years before it got into my subconscious, where I didn’t have to think about it. Basically, she taught getting a sound on the instrument, a piano sound, and she explained how and why it happens, and if you understand and apply the concept, it will enable you dynamically to play as soft as you want or as loud as you want, or anywhere in-between, and you don’t scuffle in terms of playing slow or fast or in between. It’s a very involved technique, and I’m not qualified to teach it, but basically it’s about relaxation—you breathe from the diaphragm as though you’re playing a horn, and conceptualize your fingertips as a reed and the keys as a mouthpiece. The sound travels out of you to the soundboard and out of the piano. When I started with her, she told me that basically all the great Russian classical pianists have this technique—Gieseking, Horowitz, and so on. They all understand this, and this is the way they’re schooled. I came to believe her after a while. I started studying with her when I was 13, I think, when I moved to Boston, and I stopped studying formally with her when I finished high school at 17. But still, through college, while I was in Boston, she was like a surrogate mother to me. We were extremely close, and when I could, I would spend a lot of time at her apartment, just talking about music. She was a big fan of mine, which I’m forever grateful for.
Your years at Harvard came directly after her son died as well.
Yes. Through Margaret, I met Serge (Chaloff, the bari saxophonist], and was able to play with him when I was 13-14 years old, which was a great musical education for me. Nothing else was ever involved; it was just about the music. Serge was an extraordinarily talented guy who, unfortunately, had a substance abuse problem which killed him. During his last years, he came back to Boston, because his money was gone, he wasn’t doing too well with his health—and he stayed with his mother. He was working around his Boston, and his mother recommended me to him. Some of the jobs were trio, with drums, piano, and baritone saxophone, for $8-$9 a night. Working like that, without a bass, was strange, but I learned not to overcompensate, just to forget that there wasn’t a bass, and just play. He taught me things harmonically, and he played a vast repertoire of standard songs, which I had never done before. Serge had a hair-trigger temper, perhaps because of the substance abuse—I don’t know. If I made a mistake, or if something bothered him, he would think nothing, in the middle of a tune, in front of an audience, just to turn around and start yelling and screaming, and, 'No, motherfucker, it’s this and it’s this, or it should be that.' I guess some people would have just wilted under it. But in a way, I thrived. It was a challenge. I thought, 'All right, goddammit,' and I did it. I learned under those kind of situations. Some people wouldn’t have been able to do it, but I reacted the way I did.
So it was challenging to me, but I learned a great deal from Serge. He was very special, and his mother, to this day, is my mentor. She had incredible energy. She was ageless. I guess she was in her eighties when she passed. She had more energy than I’ve ever had in her life. She didn’t look her age. Just an extraordinary woman, one that comes along once in a generation. Her life was devoted to her students. She taught, whether they could afford it or not. Some students she taught for nothing. Some fairly wealthy Bostonians came to her for whatever reason. She would charge them accordingly, but she was a sliding scale. Some kids had no money whatsoever. It didn’t matter. So I learned a great deal from her, in many ways.
You mentioned playing with Herb Pomeroy’s sextet during those years. Perhaps because it housed to many music conservatories, Boston had a pretty powerful scene then, with very advanced musicians.
I would think so. There was a wonderful pianist, who passed away, Dick Twardzik, who was from Boston. Peter Lipman, a drummer. Both had problems with substance abuse, which killed them both. But they were on the scene. Also Joe Gordon, a wonderful trumpet player from Boston. Charlie Mariano came out of Boston. Quite a few people who eventually became well-known outside of the area. I was able to play with these guys, and also learned a great deal.
At Harvard, you must have been considered a very interesting student.
I was a maverick in the department. At the time, they didn’t recognize anything after Stravinsky. So jazz was a complete waste of ... It was not music, certainly. It was heresy. My only professor at Harvard who accepted it, and was lovely, was Walter Piston, and he was about to retire the year I graduated or the following year—I don’t remember. He taught a course called Techniques of 20th Century Music. Every week he would assign a small class of us to write something in this style, write something in 12-tone, and so on. He was very relaxed. He knew I was involved in jazz, and he was very nice, very mellow. But I had problems with every other professor I had during the time I was there. I was somewhat of a rebel, and I wasn’t shy about expressing that. But they really did not recognize anything much into the 20th century at all.
But you were performing. They couldn’t have been had much power over you.
It didn’t matter. The music was heresy to them. It was nonsense. I didn’t go there for that. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, which blew my mind at the time, but I didn’t go to Harvard for the music. In the four years I was there, I took six music courses—four theory courses and two history courses. Every undergraduate has to choose a major, so I chose music, but I didn’t go there for the music. I was fortunate to be accepted, and got a B.A. in Liberal Arts, and studied English and Psychology and some science courses, and different kinds of things.
You dedicated Promises Kept to your parents and grandparents. You’re of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Were your parents born here or born there?
My mother was born in Budapest, but she came over when she was two or three years old. My father was born here. Both sets of grandparents were born in Hungary. This was a tribute to them, the fact that they came to this country and enabled me to express myself, just to play music in a society where there was no repression or oppression, where I could do whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, both parents passed away before this music came out.
Promises Kept is comprised of entirely original music. You’ve made a number of records, many for the Japanese market, where they give you a theme and give you a list of tunes, and you select ...
They give me a list of songs. If I want to play one of them or all of them, that’s fine. If I don’t want to play any of them, that’s fine, too. I’ve recorded a lot of standards, so it’s helpful each time we have a project to do, that I get a list of songs, and choose from them. The challenge is that some of these songs have been recorded a zillion times by different people, so I need to find a way to play them that’s interesting to me and the trio I’m recording with.
How long does it take to develop a point of view?
Generally, I’ll have a three- to four-week notice before the producer comes to New York. I get a list from Todd Barkan, who generally co-produces these recordings. Two of the recordings in recent years were classical music themes, some that I grew up with. But I got hold of a classical fake book—I didn’t even know these existed—and went through it page-by-page, playing melodies. “Oh, this sounds familiar; let me see if this has a ring to it or something that I can relate to, or takes me back to when I was playing when I was a kid.” I would hunt for those kinds of songs. The first recording, Pavane for A Dead Princess, was easier—it had 9 or 10 songs of classical themes. The second, more recent one, Baubles, Bangles and Beads, has more classical themes, but it was harder to find themes that I could relate to, because I’d used up the ones that I really liked. The producer wasn’t specific about which classical themes he wanted. But on standards he is. Sometimes I do a good number of them, and sometimes half. It varies.
But you’ve done perhaps ten recordings for this label, and others with a similar feel for Concord, Reservoir, and other domestic independents. Last year, ECM reissued Life’s Backward Glances, which contained three of your ‘70s recordings, including the excellent solo record, Ecstasy. These records are very different in flavor than the things you did in the ‘60s with Coltrane, Stan Getz and Art Farmer, and presumably even the first recordings you did in the late ‘60s after you moved to Europe, Watch What Happens, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, and a standards date in 1969 with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. What were you thinking about during those years?
I was living in Sweden between 1967 and 1971, and while I was there, perhaps in 1969 or 1970, I’d heard about Manfred, that he was starting up a record company in Germany and that he was interested in recording me. But nothing ever happened until I came back to New York in 1971, and we communicated maybe in 1972 or 1973.
By then, he’d begun to record Keith Jarrett’s first solo recitals.
I guess so. My first recording for ECM was 1974, a quartet recording called Trance that we did in New York with Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, and Susan Evans on percussion. A couple of months after that, he wanted to mix the recording in the studio in Oslo, Norway, and I flew there, and in the course of the day that we were mixing the Trance recording, he said, ‘If the studio is available tomorrow, I want you to do a solo recording.” Without warning or anything. I had no idea what I was going to do. P.S., the studio was available, and I stayed up most of the night, just churning, “What am I going to record?’ I wound up doing originals that I’d written, but never thought of doing solo, and there was one spontaneous improvisation called “Prelude in G.” As I said earlier, when Manfred is into the music, he’s a great guide and a great producer, and he led me through this. I would do one piece, and he said, “Ok, that’s fine. Now, the next piece, start with a little more motion” or “a little less motion,” or try this, try that. He really led me through it, and in three hours, I had done it. He was ecstatic. At the time, he said it was the best solo recording that he’d done, and to this day he’s very complimentary about it. I’d never done anything like it before, and it was quite challenging, but apparently it worked out ok, as far as Manfred was concerned.
When did you begin to compose in a serious way?
In terms of any consistent of volume of songs, it happened in Sweden. I was living with [singer] Monica Zetterlund, and I had recorded everything that was in my trio repertoire on that 1969 BYG recording in Paris with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. That was actually Swallow’s last recording on acoustic bass. He’d already given away his acoustic basses, so he borrowed the bass for that date. After the date, Swallow, who is like the brother I never had, said, 'Ok, now it’s time; you’ve got to start writing. Seriously.' Monica got on my case as well. 'You’ve got to start writing.' I realized it, too—what else am I going to play? So that was the moment, the epiphany part of it. I went back to Stockholm. It was the summertime. We had a house on an island right outside of Stockholm, and I sat in a chair in the yard ... We had three boxer dogs, and I was sort of in charge of them, and they were running around the yard. Of course, summers in Sweden are like spring and fall, not very hot and very little humidity, so it was comfortable to sit outside—you don’t get sunburned and all. And I started writing music. Some of the songs, I put lyrics to as well, some stream-of-consciousness, some more serious. But within a month or two, I wrote 12 or 13 songs, which is the most prolific I’d ever been up to that point—and probably since. But then I had some material.
These recordings don’t particularly reference things you’d been doing in New York during the ‘60s, and they’re not particularly dissonant or referential to the avant-garde, there’s a lot of lyricism, a song-like feeling. So looking retrospectively at your career, the ‘70s seems like discrete interlude, and the impression is that over the last 25 years—and this is a gross generalization and reductive—you’ve integrated within your approach to the trio the different attitudes to music-making explored up to then.
I’d say so. Of course. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time with the standards. I grew up listening to the standard songs, played a lot of them on commercial jobs I’d done over the years, had a good knowledge of the standard songs, and a lot of them resonated for me. The question was how to play them and have my stamp on it, so to speak, where it became interesting, and interesting for the trio as well. So that was part of the repertoire, and then also to play these originals.
Almost every recording I did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s with Manfred at ECM, for the most part, was original music. That’s what he wanted, and that was the discipline I need to write. Some guys I know write every day—they sit down at the piano, or wherever they do it, and write. Sometimes they come up with nothing, sometimes ... Gary McFarland was great at this. Every morning, maybe between 10 and noon, he would sit down at the piano and crank it out. I admire that greatly. I was never able to do that, although I can do it when I have an assignment. Like, Manfred said, “We’re doing this album; you need to have 8 pieces.” So I would just sit at the piano, and perspire, and stare at a blank piece of manuscript paper, and try a little something at the piano, and have an idea about what kind of tempo it is or what kind of song it’s going to be, and go from there. Gradually, stuff would come. But it’s labor. It’s arduous. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with, “Oh my goodness, this is a melody in my head,” and I have a piece of paper on the side of the bed and I write it down. That happens very infrequently. Most of the time, it’s just sitting and grinding it out.
But Manfred was very responsible for me doing this, because he wanted original music. I always thank him for that, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have done it.
I guess Swallow will be part of your next New York engagement, in mid August at the Jazz Standard, along with Al Foster, with whom you also perform a good deal. How far do you go back with Steve Swallow? Art Farmer? You must have known him earlier.
Yes, I did.
He’s a Yale man and you’re a Harvard man.
I think he was there for two years, and he dropped out. He couldn’t stand it. He’s a sweetheart. I adore him.
In any case, I had done some trio work with him and Pete LaRoca before Art Farmer. It had been them and Jim Hall with Art’s quartet, and then Jim left. So Swallow and Pete recommended me, and Art hired me instead of the guitar. That was for a year, and it was great to play with those guys. Art was an extraordinarily talented trumpet player as well. So it was a nice year. Then we started to work a bit more as a trio after that period, before I went to Sweden. But I’d played with Swallow in different situations since probably 1960 or 1961.
There are several different trios. For ECM, you’ve recorded with David Finck and Joey Baron. You’ve also done a number of things with David and Billy Drummond. Perhaps fewer projects, but still some in the 90s with Swallow and Aldo Romano. Then also, occasional things with the All Star Trio with Ron Carter (also an Art Farmer alumnus) and Al Foster. Do you find yourself playing differently with the different bands? Do the differences in the band sounds have more to do with the personnel, or do they put you in a different space?
I sort of play the way I play. When I work with Ron and Al, for example, we’re of an age, so we have a very similar frame of reference in the way we grew up, the things we listened to. So there are certain references we each do, and it triggers a response. The trio sort of runs itself, in a sense, but it doesn’t make it better or worse—it’s just different. When I work with David and Billy Drummond, for example, or Joey Baron, they’re twenty years younger than I am, so they bring what they bring, and I certainly learn from them, and hopefully they’ll learn something from me. I’m probably more “leader-like” in that sense. It all works.
A more general question. Do you get to listen to much music by younger musicians? Do you find yourself listening less these days? Listening more?
Much less. When I first came to New York, as I said, I was out every night, listening-listening-listening. Then after a while, I’ve just had it up to the eyeballs. I know there are a lot of young, talented people out there. People send me CDs. Some I listen to, some I don’t, some I skim through. It depends. But I don’t listen as much as I used to, certainly.
Back to Coltrane’s music, which you hadn’t played or listened to for forty-plus years, before revisiting it on this project. The music that Coltrane was playing at the time of his death seemed radically different to people who had loved his music in the period when you were playing with him. Your personal involvement in the Giant Steps era music allowed you to assimilate it in your DNA in a way that no pianist other than McCoy Tyner had an opportunity to do. Mostly Coltrane, which consists of repertoire from both periods, sounds very much of a piece.
Coltrane’s music is part of my growing up. As I said, since I didn’t hear the later music, when I play it now, I approach it the way I approach it, with no point of reference other than my own development as a musician. I’m in my early seventies, and it’s reflective of how I’ve evolved over the last fifty years. It’s amazing to me that, when I worked with John, who was just a dozen years older than I, could have been a hundred years older in terms of where I perceived him to be musically. The gap in development was extraordinary. To think about what he did, and that he passed away at such an early age ... You tend to wonder whether he’d said all he was really going to say, and that perhaps he would have become a parody of himself, had he lived, were he alive today. We’ll never know, of course. But it’s interesting to speculate on whether he may just have run the course. Occasionally, after my time after him, I’d run into him on the street or maybe hear him somewhere, and he’d say, 'Tell me something new.' He was very interested in Xenakis, for example, because of the mathematics in his composing. I knew a little bit, though I’m certainly not an authority. But he’d always ask me about contemporary composers, the 20th-century composers, and what they were doing. He was very much interested in whatever was going on at that time.
So his influence on me is undeniable. It’s there. But what I bring to it now is what I bring to it, and hopefully I have some sort of voice that is my voice, more than it’s been, and continues to evolve. That’s pretty much all I can say.
Have you now gone back to Coltrane’s later records?
No, and frankly, I really have no desire to. 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.
Do you have a new big project in the works?
What I’d like to do—and within the last year a couple of people have approached me with a 'Why don’t you?'”—is a recording with Claus Ogerman. I heard a recording he did with Danilo Perez last year, as well as something he did with Michael Brecker and something he did back in the day, and just to hear his writing made me recall how special he is. Now, I don’t know whether this will ever happen. I spoke to Manfred about it, and Manfred being Manfred (they both live in Munich), said, 'It sounds like something that is possible, but we need to talk about it.' I guess he has certain reservations about what Claus does. So we haven’t really talked about it specifically. I’d like to do some of my original music with him, and maybe some classical themes, or some of the older stuff. His writing, I think, is extraordinary. But he’s approaching 80 now.
Other than that, ECM is planning to reissue three more LPs, Trance being one of them, and a live recording at Fat Tuesdays that I did when I had the group with Sheila Jordan, and a quartet recording with Steve Slagle.
Also, in 2003, I had a quintuple bypass operation, which I’m only mentioning as a point of reference. Five weeks after the surgery, I had a concert in California, the music of Gary McFarland from The October Suite, which has never been played outside of the studio since we did it in 1966. Mark Masters, who is affiliated with Claremont College out there, has been reviving things from different composers back in the day, and he’s a big fan of Gary’s. So I flew out to California with David Finck, and we did this recording. For me, Gary’s music holds up; it sounds as lovely as it did back then. My playing on the original recording I could have done a lot better, I think. That night at Claremont College was recorded, and I’ve just gotten hold of the recording. There was also a trio segment with Peter Erskine on drums. We did some trio songs and did “The October Suite” with musicians from Los Angeles. My playing is a helluva lot better than it was on the original recording, so I’m going to see if I can get someone interested in putting it out. It’s extraordinary to think what Gary was doing back then. He was an original talent. Very special.
So when you tell students to decide whether they can handle this for the long haul, you know what you’re talking about.
Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] But for me, it’s a raison d’etre. If I don’t have the music ... I’ve said this to the love of my life. I’ve been involved with a woman, Martha, for the last nine-and-a-half years, the longest relationship I ever had. I told her, 'when I go, carry me off the bandstand.' Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do. I do some private teaching, and I enjoy it. But playing with the trio or in other contexts—but especially the trio—is it for me. That’s what keeps the blood flowing. I’ll never retire, certainly. So that’s the way it should end.
Your life path has probably diverged a lot from many of your fellow Harvard-‘59 graduates.
It was the 50th reunion this past June, so I went up there. But I can’t stand these kind of gatherings. I’m shy, and you look at people who you haven’t seen in fifty years, and you’re looking at their name tags, and they have a vague ring of familiarity, but fifty years has gone by. So I booked a night at Sculler’s, the jazz club in Boston. The night before Sculler’s, there was a little party with people I’d gone to school with, and some people I hadn’t seen in fifty years. It was given by a friend in Newton, Massachusetts, and it was really quite lovely to reconnect with these people. Then the following night, we played with the trio with Billy Drummond and David Finck at Sculler’s, and a lot of classmates came. It was really quite nice. I didn’t go to the commencement, I didn’t take any pictures, but my 50th reunion of the class of 1959 was that party the night before and Sculler’s. It’s unbelievable how fast those years go by.
Ted Panken spoke with Steve Kuhn on July 29, 2009.