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May 2009

Steve Kuhn
Life’s Backward Glances
ECM Records

This boxed set reissues three Steve Kuhn albums from the ’70s, all long out of print. It is an uneven package, with one solo gem (Ecstasy), one quartet album that is easier to respect than to love (Motility), and one problem (Playground).

Playground is a problem because singer Sheila Jordan is buried so deep in the mix that she is drowned out by Kuhn’s trio, and her words are often unintelligible. It is an inexplicable error for an ECM recording. The six vocal songs are Kuhn originals. Their stream-of-consciousness lyrics sometimes come upon epiphanies, like “I will always miss what we never had.” Jordan’s dramatizations, insofar as we can hear them, sound emotionally authentic, and Kuhn’s open structures are innovative. But the weird mix undermines these enigmatic jazz art songs.

On Motility, Steve Slagle plays a lot but rarely solos. His flute provides silver coloring on “The Rain Forest,” and his frenetic soprano saxophone is the turbulence within “Oceans In the Sky.” Motility is a challenging work. Irrational impulses take the music from the near silence of widely spaced treble piano notes to saxophone shrieks and piano thunder, then back to quietude. Following these creative forces as they are unleashed is interesting for the intellect but often unpleasant for the ears.

Ecstasy also contains startling mood swings. Long passages of meditative melodicism descend without warning into turmoil. But working alone, Kuhn comes up with spontaneous piano designs that feel more organic, and the dominant impression is his continuous discovery of fresh lyrical form. Like the other two albums here, Ecstasy features Kuhn’s compositions. “Silver” and “Thoughts of a Gentleman” and “Life’s Backward Glance” often reappeared on his later recordings, but these versions are Kuhn’s freest and deepest.

In the early ’70s ECM released a series of recordings by Keith Jarrett (Facing You) and Chick Corea (Piano Improvisations in two volumes) and Paul Bley (Open, To Love) that revived interest in the solo piano improvised art form. Ecstasy got less attention at the time, but deserves to join that list.

Originally published in May 2009
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