Live at Birdland
Blue Note Records
In jazz journalism, “bios” are obsessive, redundant things. Virtually everything ever written about Steve Kuhn goes right to the fact that he was the original pianist in the John Coltrane Quartet in 1960—as if Kuhn’s two months with Coltrane outweigh his prolific and distinguished (if mostly under-the-radar) career in the nearly half-century since.
Kuhn’s time may have finally come. In 2004 he released Promises Kept on a major label, ECM, a widely praised incorporation of strings into a jazz setting. And now Kuhn has become a rare new jazz signing by Blue Note.
Kuhn made two trio recordings with this same personnel (Ron Carter and Al Foster) at the Village Vanguard in 1986. Several tunes from the earlier albums are revisited on this Blue Note debut. The 11-minute Birdland version of “Jitterbug Waltz” proves that Kuhn is a bolder, freer and funnier player than 20 years ago. It also demonstrates his most impressive virtue, his extraordinary ringing complex tone production. (It is as if he plays not a Steinway but a Kuhn.)
The predominant velocity is fast. “Lotus Blossom” (Kenny Dorham’s, not Strayhorn’s) and “Confirmation” and even “Passion Flower” (yes, Strayhorn’s) showcase Kuhn’s capacity for high-speed creative variety and surprise. “Stella by Starlight” is a ballad, but keeps with the album’s liberated spirit because Kuhn plays all around the edges of it. His mother’s name was Stella, and it is as if he wants to participate in the song’s emotion, but from a safe distance.