Stev Kuhn Trio featuring David Finck & Billy Drummond
March 2, 2011
"Mostly Coltrane" the latest recording from pianist Steve Kuhn is a multi-faceted celebration of the magisterial music of John Coltrane, presented by a player who was the original pianist in the Coltrane Quartet.
At the end of 1959, when Coltrane was preparing to leave Miles Davis and commit himself to a career as a leader, the great saxophonist called upon Kuhn, bassist Steve Davis and drummer Pete La Roca to join him for live performances. “In January, February and March of 1960, I was privileged to work with John Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery in New York City”, says Kuhn in his introductory note to “Mostly Coltrane”. “This music reflects my deep respect for him.”
On this recording, Kuhn and his fellow musicians, with Joe Lovano at the very top of his form (rising to the considerable challenge of playing tenor sax on a Coltrane tribute), and Joey Baron channelling and transforming the influence of Elvin Jones, explore the highways and byways of Coltrane’s musical journey. In these performances, Kuhn not only returns to pieces he once played with Coltrane – “Central Park West”, “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”, “I Want To Talk About You” – but follows Trane’s story through to the end. Kuhn’s extremely well-plotted tribute includes versions of material (“Jimmy’s Mode”, “Configuration”) which only surfaced in 1994, nearly 30 years after Coltrane’s death, on the posthumously-issued “Stellar Regions” album assembled by Alice Coltrane.
The album opens, however, with “Welcome”, from 1965’s “Kulu Sé Mama”, of which Coltrane once wrote: “’Welcome’ is that feeling you have when you finally reach awareness, an understanding, which you have earned through struggle. A welcome feeling of peace.”
Steve Kuhn himself sounds so unlike either of the pianists most closely associated with Coltrane – Alice Coltrane or McCoy Tyner – that it is tempting to speculate on what might have been made, had his time with Coltrane been extended. But at 21, Kuhn was still finding his own musical directions, a prodigiously-talented pianist whose work was yet to find its artistic focus. With hindsight he can bring all his knowledge to bear on the material – and the results are riveting, as he develops his cogent musical arguments in a span from balladry to free playing.
The level of group understanding is as evident as the strength of the individual contributions. Although Joe Lovano is joining an established band here – Kuhn’s long-running trio with David Finck and Joey Baron (whose “Remembering Tomorrow” album was recorded by ECM fourteen years ago) – there is never a sense of soloist-with-rhythm-section: this is a thoroughly-integrated quartet, which itself is a ‘Coltranean’ position, Coltrane Quartet music being amongst the first in post-bop jazz to make of the music more than the sum of its solos.
This was a lesson not lost on the young Joe Lovano (b. 1952) who grew up immersed in Coltrane’s sound. His father, saxophonist Tony Lovano had jammed with Coltrane in Cleveland in the early 1950s. Joe learned to play by studying, with attention to detail, all subsequent stations on Coltrane’s journey, and his involvement with the music has been a lifelong passion.
In the mid-1970s, shortly after moving to New York, Joe Lovano played with Rashied Ali. In 1997 he recorded with Elvin Jones in a trio programme that already included Lovano’s own tributes to Coltrane, and in our present century he has toured and recorded with McCoy Tyner, still monitoring his own growth as a mature artist with reference to Coltrane’s circle.
“Mostly Coltrane” was recorded in New York’s Avatar Studios in December 2008, with Manfred Eicher producing.
Born in Brooklyn in 1938, Steve Kuhn was fascinated with jazz very early in his life. In his teens, Kuhn studied with legendary teacher Margaret Chaloff who schooled him in the “Russian Technique”, an invaluable tool for tone production and projection. Chaloff’s son, Serge, baritone saxophonist for Woody Herman, hired the 13 year-old pianist to play in his group. Throughout his teens Kuhn continued to play in Boston jazz clubs with, amongst other visiting celebrities, Coleman Hawkins, Chet Baker, and Vic Dickenson.
In 1959 Kuhn attended the Lenox School of Music where he played and recorded with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry The faculty included Bill Evans, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller. While at Lenox, Kuhn met trumpeter Kenny Dorham and began a two-year stint in his group, interrupted when Kuhn was asked to join John Coltrane’s newly-formed quartet. Kuhn next joined Stan Getz’s band, which included bassist Scott LaFaro. After a period with Art Farmer, he formed the first Steve Kuhn Trio, with Pete LaRoca and Steve Swallow.
At the end of the 1960s he spent four years living in Europe, mostly in Scandinavia where his performance had a significant impact upon local players. Upon returning to the United States, Kuhn began his affiliation with ECM, resulting in a row of important albums. Three of these were reprised last year in the box set “Life’s Backward Glances” , which included the solo album ”Ecstasy”, and the quartet discs “Motility” and “Playground” (the latter with singer Sheila Jordan): the collection received many glowing reviews.
More recent Kuhn recordings on ECM include “Promises Kept” on which the Kuhn piano is set against the string arrangements of Carlos Franzetti.
Joe Lovano today records as a leader for Blue Note. His early reputation was in part established by his ECM albums with Paul Motian, and he still records for the label in Motian’s trio with Bill Frisell. Recent Motian/Frisell/Lovano albums are “I Have The Room Above Her” and “Time and Time Again.” Lovano can also be heard on Marc Johnson’s “Shades of Jade” and John Abercrombie’s “Open Land”.
Joey Baron is a member of the John Abercrombie Quartet, whose albums include “Class Trip”, “Cat’n’Mouse”, “The Third Quartet”, (a new album, “Wait Till You see Her” is due later this year) Other ECM appearances include John Taylor’s “Rosslyn” and Bill Frisell’s “Lookout for Hope”.
Parallel to his twenty-year association with Steve Kuhn, bassist David Finck has been active as a session player, arranger and producer, working with everyone from Sir André Previn to Pete Seeger, via Herbie Hancock and Paquito D’Rivera.