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Steve Kuhn: Shimmering Beauty

By Published: July 7, 2009
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Standards and Beyond

AAJ: To the more casual jazz fan you are better known for your trio/standards format. Was there ever expectation or pressure from any label not to stray too far from that formula?

SK: There was no pressure, but when I would record for ECM all he [producer/label head Manfred Eicher] wanted was originals. I started recording for ECM in 1974. It has just been in the last 20-25 years that I have probably recorded more standards, if you will.

Part of it is because I grew up listening to a lot of these standards. They were part of my fiber, as you say. It was challenging for me to play them in the trio context and play them in a way that they were personalized as much as possible; even though they had been recorded by other people (and a lot of them had been recorded a lot of times). It was always challenging to make it as interesting as possible for me, as well as the people in the trio. So that was a challenge in and of itself.

Steve Kuhn

Plus writing, for me, has always been very difficult. When I have an assignment I can sit at the piano and grind it out but it doesn't come easy. Some people have a discipline where they can sit maybe two or three hours every day and compose; and however much they use eventually remains to be seen. But just to have that discipline every day to sit down and try to compose, I have never been able to do that. I work best when I have a deadline and a project to do.

In recent times I have recorded a lot for the Japanese label Venus and they want standards for the most part. I have done some originals for them but it is mostly standards. I have done maybe a dozen CDs for them; usually it's about one a year. But I enjoy doing both.

When we tour and when we are playing out, it is probably about 70% other peoples' music and 30% originals that make up the repertoire that I do now.

AAJ: With your own songs, do you find yourself taking a different approach in regards to where you want the emotion of your solo to take the listener perhaps having it be in the service of the song to a greater extant as opposed to the framework in which to build off of. What is this difference if any in where and how you solo in a standard versus original piece?

SK: These things change over the years. They just reissued these CDs and I listened to them once just because I have not listened to them in many years. I realized that some of the songs that I play now in the trio context I play differently. It has just evolved it was not a conscious thing. Just over the years, things change. So wherever they evolve, to which point; that's just the way it works out. It is just an organic process, as I feel with the standards as well. They change over time as well.

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AAJ: When you write a song do you always know beforehand what size ensemble you are going to play it with at least initially?

SK: No, not really. There are certain instances when I decided I was going to write a song that I would put lyrics to, which for the most part I did, that the melodies would be singable.

Steve Kuhn I was told a long time ago by somebody whose opinion I really respected that if you listen to all the great classical composers, they all were great melody writers. And I always kept that in mind no matter what it is I am writing, whether I am writing for an instrumental situation or with a singer in mind. Just to have a melody that is a valid melody and I always try to go along with that as much as possible.

AAJ: Do you prefer to break in a new song live before recording it or do you look at live versus recorded as two completely separate animals?

SK: If I have the opportunity I would prefer to do it live first before recording it because it is invariably going to change from what I am proposing it as by myself to the trio context.

It changes from when I was by myself, alone with it to the trio and then it changes in the trio. So if I have the time to do that, I would prefer to play it live with the trio before recording it. It doesn't always work out that way.

Sometimes I will just have to say well we will do this or that. But even in the recording studio things will change, but I would prefer to have as much time with the song before I record it.

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Songs Revisited

AAJ: Certain of your pieces such as "Life's Backward Glance" you have revisited in various forms over the course of your career. Does one version ever become the sole representation of the song or it an ongoing evolution?

SK: It depends on where I am at that particular time, in terms of where my head is at musically. It can change. And it should change. Nothing is written in stone really; the melody, you sort of allude to that and sometimes it is more literal than others. The skeletal thing is there generally but around the skeletal parts things can change quite dramatically.

I just did a recording for ECM this past December, the trio with a special guest Joe Lovano

Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
. We are doing the music of John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
, not all are his compositions but most are. Some of them are songs that I played when I worked with him but they weren't his originals. Then I did a solo piece, which I improvised spontaneously on the date. And then I did a solo version of "Trance," which I have previously recorded in trio context and with string orchestra. It has also been arranged for big band which I participated in.

Steve Kuhn The solo version I did in December was quite different than what I would have done previous to that. It really just depends.

AAJ: "Life's Backwards Glance," as done on Trance (ECM, 1974), features a spoken word performance by you. There are pieces scattered throughout your oeuvre in which you perform vocals. Is there anything which dictates the where and when of you adding vocals?

SK: No, it depends on if I think the melody is singable. It just so happens that back in the '70s when I had the band with Sheila Jordan

Sheila Jordan
Sheila Jordan
, and she really liked some of these songs. I had written lyrics for some of them and she looked forward to singing them, I was really flattered. So it just worked out that way.

A number of other singers over the years have recorded some of the songs that I have done, so it is always nice to have that. It is very flattering and I am glad that some of these songs resonate with these different people.

It's possible that songs I have written as an instrumental to this day if somebody said "I would like to sing that could you write a lyric to that" or "could somebody write it?" I would say "sure," and that is probably what would happen, whether I would do it or someone else, or collaboration with someone.

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