It's been said that "Jazz is the sound of surprise. Surprise is what you get with pianist Steve Kuhn's Trio on Live at Birdland. Like a face in a Picasso abstract, parts of a whole come at you from all angles, hardly recognizable. What the artist is showing is, however, crystal clear.
Kuhn ingeniously de-constructs standards, making the delightfully creative way in which he does so encourage appreciating the original all the more.
With the impeccably assured assistance of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster, Kuhn's deconstruction skills are no better illustrated than on the pianist's handling of Charlie Parker's bop anthem, "Confirmation. It starts with Kuhn bringing in off-beat strains from "Waltzing Mathilda, while puckishly mixing in bits of "Three Blind Mice. He ultimately romps through bop-ish fragments of the original, with Carter and Foster aggressively pushing him all the way. Another hint of "Three Blind Mice leads into Kuhn trading fours with Foster energetically, finally closing with the irresistible, unadorned theme. The experience brings one of those rare rushes jazz-lovers get after hearing something great and original.
Kuhn, not as well-known as his talent dictates, has been on the scene since the late fifties, paying his dues with the likes of Kenny Dorham, John Coltrane and Stan Getz. After a stint in the commercial world in the seventies, he returned to jazz in the eighties, forming an all-star trio with Carter and Foster. In 2006 they regrouped, culminating in this live recording.
Kuhn's sly sense of humor is also apparent from the get-go. He plays a couple of "ding, dong, ding, dongs at the beginning of "If I Were a Bell. It identifies the song, but he starts playing around with it, astutely improvising and waiting until the finish to play its familiar melody. Most groups would have put the refrain at the beginning; not Kuhn, and that makes it all the more interesting.
Fats Waller's's "Jitterbug Waltz has never been played like this before. A rippling brook of notes begins the piece, yielding to swinging trio interplay in the center section. Throwing in a in a little "Blue Danube and returning to a flowing cadenza before fitting in, improbably, the "Little Lulu refrain, (a nod to idol Bill Evans' decades-old recording), as the sly Waller might say, "One never knows, do one?
Carter excels during his solo on "Stella By Starlight, while his walking tempo anchors "Slow Hot Wind. "Stella only hints at the ever-familiar Victor Young tune but, sure enough, it's thereeven better this way.
Personnel: Steve Kuhn: piano; Ron Carter: bass; Al Foster: drums.