Trumpeter/composer Steffen Kuehn
has become a mainstay of the Bay Area jazz and Latin music scenes since arriving from his native Germany in 1997. He won a 2014 Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Album for the self-titled debut by the 20-piece Pacific Mambo Orchestra, which he co-leads with pianist Christian Tumalan. An alternately robust and warmly lyrical soloist and an on-point horn-section player, he works regularly with bands led by Latin drummer Brian Andres and timbalero Louie Romero and with jazz drummer Tommy Igoe’s Groove Conspiracy. And he has performed and recorded as a leader, releasing three albums on his Stefrecords imprint: Now or Later
(2002), with fellow trumpeter Tim Hagans; trumpop
(2008); and Constantine
Kuehn considers his newest recording, Leap of Faith
, “my first recording in a way, because,” he explains, “I did everything myself. On my previous recordings maybe I had a producer or I was recording somebody else’s music. I produced this record. I wrote the horn sections. I played in the horn section, and I’m also the soloist. I think the writing is my best writing so far.” The CD will be released by Stefrecords on July 29.
The cast of local luminaries assembled by Kuehn includes drummer Tommy Igoe, bassist Dewayne Pate, pianist Colin Hogan, onetime Steely Dan guitarist Drew Zingg, former Tower of Power and Yellowjackets alto saxophonist Marc Russo, current Tower of Power tenor saxophonist Tom Politzer, and trombonist John Gove. Guesting on one track apiece are current Yellowjackets tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer (on the Afro-Cuban “Storm”) and Pacific Mambo Orchestra vocalist Alexa Weber Morales (the bossa nova “Serenity”). The 10-song set consists of eight original compositions and arrangements by Kuehn, Aaron Lington’s arrangement of “Helen’s Song” by pianist George Cables, and John Gove’s arrangement of “Geraldine” by Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante.
“This is the most personal recording I’ve ever done and the closest to me so far,” says Kuehn. “It not only puts the spotlight on me as a trumpeter but also on my writing, which for me was equally important.”
Born (1965) and raised in Mannheim, Germany, Steffen Kuehn was drawn to the trumpet as a child and began lessons at age 8. Initially he was interested in hard rock and then soul music (Earth, Wind and Fire and Chaka Khan) before getting into jazz via the Yellowjackets and Pat Metheny. “I grew up listening to the Yellowjackets,” says Kuehn. “They’re one of my biggest influences.” He cites Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis as influences as well.
Kuehn was writing music and active in a number of bands before he decided to leave Germany, at age 23, to attend North Texas State University. During his five years there, he played in the school’s big bands. A roommate from Colombia introduced him to Latin music, which would eventually become a cornerstone of his career.
After graduating North Texas State in 1993 with a Bachelor of Music degree, Kuehn moved to Munich. There he hooked up with onetime Woody Herman and Stan Kenton high-note trumpet specialist Al Porcino, which whom he played duets in private and with his big band in public. He also played in Munich with a big band led by Serbian bop trumpeter Dusko Gojkovic.
Since relocating to Northern California in 1997, Kuehn has kept busy playing gigs with such artists as the Temptations, Four Tops, Platters, Cold Blood, John Handy, Mark Levine, Ray Obiedo, Louie Romero, Brian Andres, Generation Esmeralda, Tommy Igoe, and many more. His resume also includes recordings with Andres, Igoe, Obiedo, Wayne Wallace, and onetime Stooges guitarist James Williamson.
The Pacific Mambo Orchestra, the large ensemble he co-leads with Mexican-born, Bay Area-based pianist Christian Tumalan, started out in 2010 as the Monday night band at Café Cocomo in San Francisco playing music rooted in the old-school salsa and mambo sounds of Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez. The band, which sports a 13-member horn section, has since expanded its repertoire to include more original contemporary Latin compositions and arrangements, some by Kuehn.
Little-known at the time outside the Bay Area, the orchestra sent shockwaves throughout the international Latin music community when it won the 2014 Best Tropical Latin Album Grammy over superstar nominees Marc Anthony and Carlos Vives. “Imagine the biggest surprise you’re capable of and multiply that by 100,” Kuehn says of his initial reaction to the award.Leap of Faith
may or may not win the trumpeter another Grammy, but the variety and vitality of the 10 tracks within it seem certain to bring Kuehn greater recognition as a jazz trumpeter, composer, and arranger of the highest caliber.