Steve Kuhn: Stella by Starlight

There was a time when Steve Kuhn was criticized as a pianist for having a weak left hand and a less than compelling rhythmic sense, but that time is long past. Today he is the complete package, as he proved once again in his reunion with Ron Carter and Al Foster at Birdland, some 20 years after the same trio's Village Vanguard gig and resulting pair of much-admired albums. One of Kuhn's strengths has always been his ability to transform a well-traveled and even overplayed standard into something uniquely different and captivatingly fresh. On the Live at Birdland CD he accomplishes this most notably with the up-tempo "Confirmation" and the ballad "Stella by Starlight."

Dedicated to his mother Stella, this "Stella by Starlight" contains an ethereal opening that certainly owes a debt to Bill Evans, as does the interpretation as a whole, but is nonetheless personalized and undiluted Kuhn. While the pianist assuredly explores the tune's harmonies with only passing references to actual snippets of the melody, Carter exhibits an always in the moment responsiveness to Kuhn's probings. The bassist's beautifully articulated solo is seasoned with sensibly placed quotes from the likes of "You Better Go Now" and "Rockin' in Rhythm," and is technically stunning and ever evolving. Kuhn's subsequent improv is distinguished by a ringing timbre, an emotionally impassioned and yet logically structured series of extended lines, and a concluding impressionistic swirl of arpeggios and trills. The ecstatic reaction by the Birdland audience says it all.

July 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Martial Solal & Lee Konitz: Stella by Starlight

This track is a historical event: it was recorded during the first meeting between Solal and Konitz. It's also the only duet taped that afternoon, and the first of a long series the two musicians would subsequently play together onstage or in the studio. Indeed, as soon as they met, Solal and Konitz were like brothers, and still are more than 40 years later. This may seem strange, given the difference in their styles: Konitz's laconic, linear phrasing and rather thin sound as opposed to Solal's extrovert, baroque approach to the keyboard and his tendency to change tempo without notice. In fact their association works marvelously, as they drag each other onto one another's playground in a fascinating cat-&-mouse game. This playground is often founded, as here, on the standards they both love. To such familiar patterns they in turn bring the element of surprise. Indeed, the main common ground between Solal and Konitz may be that they hate to repeat themselves. Indeed, surprising themselves and each other is the engine that powers this unlikely but immensely likable duo.

January 19, 2009 · 1 comment


Stan Getz: Stella by Starlight

This is typically the kind of piece that people will classify as "West Coast jazz," although it was recorded in New York by a native of Philadelphia. True, Getz's tenor delivery is thoroughly relaxed, and the sound of the quintet is basically cool. But what I find most remarkable in the Getz of the early '50s is the way he can, with apparently no effort, carve a little gem of less than three minutes. Of course some will merely use it as background music. But others will listen again and again, endlessly raving at, for example, the art with which Stan casually inserts a quotation from Bizet's Carmen at the end of his solo.

January 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Ron Carter: Stella by Starlight

This is all bass, from beginning to end. Carter takes the melody, stretches out for a lengthy solo and handles the restatement at the conclusion, with only the most gentle support from the rest of the band. Carter plays with surprising restraint, leaving behind the bends and slides and tonal distortions that are his typical calling cards. Instead he hits these notes dead on in the center, and plays with a warmth and melodicism that you might associate with, for example, Charlie Haden or Ray Brown. A beautiful performance that artfully displays the lyrical side of this premier musician.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments


Chet Baker: Stella by Starlight (Tokyo 1987)

Some people will tell you Chet Baker never could do much on the trumpet. David Thomson, in one of the most wrongheaded reviews I have ever read, proclaimed "Baker, in my view, could not play jazz, and did not play it." Others will begrudgingly admit that Baker made some good records, but soon destroyed his talent with drugs and fast living. But here is a live recording made less than a year before Baker's death -- at a Tokyo date much prized by Baker-o-philes -- that finds the trumpeter improvising with unbridled creativity. Baker's preternatural ear always guided him to the right notes, the interesting phrases, the clever cadences. Here he takes an oblique pass at the melody, and then digs in deeper and deeper with each passing chorus. No trumpeter was better skilled at solving that age-old jazz problem: namely how to create new melodies for old chord changes. And this talent remained, even while Baker's good looks and health faded. Chet did not play jazz? Check out the record, and then you make the call

November 29, 2007 · 0 comments


Miles Davis: Stella by Starlight

"Stella by Starlight" is from Victor Young's film score for The Uninvited (1944), about a music critic and wannabe composer who takes a cut-rate house in the English countryside only to find that it's haunted. The female poltergeist trails a scent of mimosa, a plant whose leaves fold out when touched—much as Miles Davis let down his guard when touched by the Harmon muse. Here, Miles, Trane and Evans shadow Young's haunting melody the way mimosa trailed the specter, with goose bumps guaranteed as Davis's lead-in dissolves to Coltrane's solo. "Stella" is as spine-tingling as any cinematic ghost story.

November 01, 2007 · 0 comments


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