The Jazz.com Blog
June 08, 2009 · 1 comment
Roanna Forman, who covers the Boston jazz scene for jazz.com, reports below on a performance by an artist with strong local ties—pianist Steve Kuhn. Kuhn studied with the legendary Boston piano teacher Margaret Chaloff, and graduated from (no, not Berklee) Harvard, back in the day. He first made his mark on the local club scene, before launching a recording career now in its fifth decade. Forman discusses Kuhn’s recent appearance at Scullers. T.G.
What a difference a week makes at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston. There couldn’t have been two more different pianists than Hiromi, whom I saw there recently, and Steve Kuhn, whose trio played on June 3. Hiromi, petite, Japanese, bouncy, with an electric band, was to Kuhn—tall, American, rarely moving on a comfy pillow, and fully acoustic—as sushi is to filet mignon.
Reminiscing with his Harvard classmates in the audience and a bit incredulous that they had graduated in 1959 (the year Kind of Blue was released), Kuhn had a lot to look back on musically. He has made a lasting mark in jazz in years which have spanned post-bop, avant-garde and fusion. Yet he is distinctly original, with a poetic sensibility and intellectual bite which John Coltrane was no doubt sensed when Kuhn played with him for a time in 1960 before McCoy Tyner took the gig with Trane. (ECM will release Kuhn’s Mostly Coltrane in July, featuring Joe Lovano, with tunes from that period.)
Kuhn gave a fine performance at Scullers with David Finck on bass and Billy Drummond on drums, playing standards and two original compositions with panache and authority. They formed a cohesive, communicative and musically sophisticated unit, and the packed room heard the fruits of a lifetime commitment to high-level playing.
With sure, strong hands, Kuhn plays with a combination of virility, lyricism, and adventurous improvisation. His keyboard action is fun to watch. He will dig his pinky into the last note of a phrase, as if to lock it to the piano, or sometimes “punch” a black note in the high register with his knuckle for emphasis and finality. His tone live was more clipped and bright than I expected from his recordings. Aside from technique, Kuhn’s playing has a depth that reaches into the emotion of a song, instead of just playing on the changes, as Bob Blumenthal once aptly observed. That was clearly evident in the ballad he chose for the set, “Portrait of Jenny.”
Kuhn has chosen excellent musicians to work with. Billy Drummond’s playing steered clear of bombast, even at the high points of solos, and his brushwork was tasteful and polished on the lighter pieces. David Finck was fat or feathery by turns, depending on the song, and has command of his instrument. Finck’s solos stood out for a musicality and melodic invention that you really got lost in, notably on “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” where he made the bass a light thing, building new melodies and adding some lovely double-stop playing.
The well thought out set list started off swinging Miles’s “Four” (“It’s quite extraordinary that three of us can play that….”) and included “The Lamp is Low” in a two-feel. “Blue Bossa” began solo piano with dramatic voicings, then the rest of the band came in on a samba, adding a nice chromatic line to the arrangement that was punctuated by light stops. When Kuhn introduced the tune, written by Kenny Dorham, “a friend from my first days in New York,” I couldn’t helping thinking of Jimmy Heath’s offhand first-person reference to Blue Mitchell, whose “Funjii Mama” he played to close a set at this club last year). Kuhn’s solo on “Blue Bossa” went in many directions, at one point landing on a simple diatonic pattern reminiscent of a child’s etude, and later working into an overwrought parody of “Besame Mucho.”
In the Kuhn original “Two by Two,” a blues insofar as it’s a 12-bar form, each musician echoed a descending piano line, like a little laugh rippling through the trio. Introducing “Oceans in the Sky,” another Kuhn composition, David Finck created some sound effects to set up the tune. Looking over to Kuhn, he quietly added tongue-in-cheek, “Those are the seagulls…”
The mood changed as Finck bowed an introduction with elegance and pathos. Kuhn picked up the last note of the bass section, and opened up this tune that conjures storms, rumbling waves and the rolling sea. Billy Drummond began his solo sparely, and after filling it, returned to an interplay of cymbals in his own interpretation of the ebb and flow of sea and sky in this impressionistic piece.
From the forthcoming Coltrane-based CD, Kuhn chose “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” swinging it hard then slowing to a ballad feel with polyrhythms inside the swing. Kuhn’s version was lighter than Coltrane’s, with references at one point to the theme of the U.S. Air Force, which might have seeped into his unconscious during childhood in the WWII years. Yes, off we go, into the wild blue yonder, a place Steve Kuhn has reached for throughout his musical life.
This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman