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Steve Kuhn: Promises Kept

Jazz albums with strings are like those urban locations where restaurant after restaurant keeps failing. Apparently, jazz recordings with violin backgrounds and restaurants in certain spots seem like such good ideas that there is always someone ready to try again, in defiance of the odds against success.

Most jazz albums with strings don’t work because the plush textures that are supposed to add depth and dimension become static and disembodied, and the intended sweetness soon cloys. But Promises Kept is a sublime exception, a work of luminous realization and emotional impact and wholeness. Pianist Steve Kuhn (for whom this album was “a life’s dream”) leverages the strengths of strings in a jazz context (their direct appeal to the emotions, their scale and weight, their sensual allure) while avoiding the aforementioned pitfalls.

Kuhn is best known as an erudite interpreter of the classic jazz songbook, but his 10 originals here reveal a very special melodic touch that serves the direct expression of feeling. His right hand proclaims stark lyricism in the midst of the strings, moving with them and through them and against them in interactions that make the inspiration sound mutual and the string ensemble’s written parts sound spontaneous.

The orchestrations are the work of Carlos Franzetti, who was instructed by Kuhn to “make it beautiful but not background music, be spare and heartrending.” Franzetti succeeds. He derives sonorities from nine violins, three violas and three cellos that are rich and finely detailed and organic to the over-arching purpose. “Trance” is representative: the string ensemble flows from the foreground of the portentous introduction, then back to a barely audible, subtly shifting backdrop for Kuhn’s rapt tremolos, then forward again to prominence. “Adagio” and “Pastorale” are also pieces where the written arrangements, and Kuhn’s fervent intrusions, make the strings sound like they are responding to the pianist’s telling self-revelations with their own breathing and yearning.

Steve Kuhn, now in his fifth decade of recording, has made the album of his life.

Originally Published