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Steve Kuhn: Life's Backward Glances

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Pianist Steve Kuhn recently explored the beginnings of his musical career on Mostly Coltrane (ECM, 2009). On this three-CD set, ECM commemorates Kuhn's mid-career work with reissues of three LPs recorded between 1974 and 1979. Life's Backward Glances is aptly titled and not just because two of the three albums conclude with Kuhn's song of the same name. More than moods with Kuhn, retrospection and reflection form the basis of his aesthetic. Part of a school of cerebral modernist pianists that's headed by Bill Evans and Paul Bley, Kuhn is not just a member but also a distinctive stylist, with an exploratory modal insistence that takes his piano improvisations into the thin-air realms of Scriabin. There's also a tendency to rework themes from album to album, here with titles changed and lyrics sometimes added. There's a certain mirror-like quality to the discs and not just in the repeated themes. Looking back at Kuhn's music is looking back at someone already looking back.

The first disc presents Motility, with Steve Slagle on flute and saxophones, Harvie Swartz on bass and Michael Smith on drums. It begins with the slightly dated essay in atmospherics, "The Rain Forest," complete with pretty flute, jungle percussion and an overly-bright, compressed sound that's unlike the resonant warmth that usually characterizes ECM. The music eventually develops some character with Swartz's "Catherine," a ballad with subtle rhythmic overlays, and Kuhn's wittily disjointed "Deep Tango" (demonstrating a compositional affinity with Carla Bley), but in general it hasn't aged well.

Playground is a very different story. From 1979, it presents a striking Kuhn quartet with Swartz, drummer Bob Moses and singer Sheila Jordan. There's a tendency for such quartets to turn into a singer with accompaniment, but there's no danger of that here: Kuhn is too powerful an instrumental presence, and he's both the lyricist and composer of the tunes. Jordan is one of the most musically committed and inventive singers to grace jazz in the past 50 years, with a nice talent for singing lyrics, finding the ideal emotional pitch for Kuhn's idiosyncratic imagery, which sometimes rests with poetic aplomb between doggerel and surrealism, as with "The Zoo": "Send twenty dollars to me/So I can be free." "Deep Tango" is, again, a musical highlight, a tango that presses further afield into some extraordinary microtonal vocalizing and brilliant bass playing, all driven forward by the surging rhythmic roller-coaster of Moses and Kuhn.

The final disc, Ecstasy, was recorded in 1974. This solo piano set isn't just the earliest of the three but also the source of some of the other melodies (Ecstasy was Kuhn's first and only dedicated solo foray until 1990). The profoundly reflective opener, "Silver," features lush modal lines echoing to infinity with the sustain pedal, creating a mood that finds resonance over the entire program, from the brilliantly articulated lines, driving rhythms and sudden hesitancies of "Thoughts of a Gentleman—The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers" to the spinning upper-register chromatic runs of "Life's Backward Glance"—once more a playful circus of sound that's suddenly haunted by sustained dissonance and odd fragments of major-key melody. It's Kuhn's art at its most refined and intense, less about emotions immediately felt than those that are called up in memory, nursed and expanded into rhapsody.

Track Listing: CD1 (Ecstasy): Silver; Prelude in G; Ulla; Thoughts of a Gentleman/The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers; Life's Backward Glance. CD2 (Motility): The Rain Forest; Oceans in the Sky; Catherine; Bittersweet Passages; Deep Tango; Motility/The Child is Gone; A Danse for One; Places I've Never Been. CD3 (Playground): Tomorrow's Son; Gentle Thoughts; Poem for No. 15; The Zoo; Deep Tango; Life's Backward Glance.

Personnel: Steve Kuhn: piano; Steve Slagle: soprano and alto saxophones (CD2), flute (CD2); Harvie Swartz: double-bass (CD2, CD3); Michael Smith: drums (CD2); Sheila Jordan: voice (CD3); Bob Moses: drums (CD3).

Title: Life's Backward Glances | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ECM Records

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