Steve Kuhn: Non-Fiction

John Kelman BY

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Steve Kuhn—Non-FictionSteve Kuhn
ECM Records

Today's Rediscovery is another title that falls into the category of "begging to be issued on CD for the first time. When ECM Records released Life's Backward Glances—Solo and Quartet in 2009—part of its Old & New Masters Edition series of box sets that gathered together various albums, some never before on CD in their full form, others never on CD before ever—there seemed to be one notable absence from a box that collected pianist Steve Kuhn's 1974 solo album Ecstasy, his 1977 "Ecstasy Quartet" date Motility, and, finally, 1980's Playground, the first of two recordings for the label that the pianist made with singer Sheila Jordan. That album is Non-Fiction, today's Rediscovery, which reunited the Ecstasy group—but this time under Kuhn's name alone, and with one significant personnel change.

While Kuhn brought back saxophonist/flautist Steve Slagle and bassist Harvie Swartz (in recent years changing his name to just Harvie S), original drummer Michael Smith was gone and in his place was Bob Moses, a drummer already familiar to fans of the label for his work with Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow and Dave Liebman. If Smith brought a more delicate approach to Kuhn and Swartz's original music, Moses lit a major fire beneath the group, evident from the very beginning of the bassist's ferocious "Firewalk," which opens the set. A John Coltrane-esque modal romp that nevertheless possessed a sound that was cleaner and less dense than the saxophone giant's work, Moses and Swartz—with a gut-punching tone that makes it curious why, despite being active enough, he never achieved greater popular acclaim—drive the changes hard, as Slagle delivers a high bar-setting soprano saxophone solo that Kuhn manages to match...and raise...with his own feature that follows.

While Kuhn is a pianist capable of profound lyricism and rarely (if ever) delves into the realm of virtuosity for its own sake, here he's positively nuclear, his solo building to a climax of dissonant right-hand lines and matching hard-edged left-hand block chords, building to such a fiery climax that the group almost—almost—loses its way. But that's just an illusion as, when Kuhn finishes by reining things back in, Moses respond with a short but similarly impassioned solo that leads the group to a reiteration of the head...and closure.

Kuhn's "Random Thoughts" opens with an a cappella flute solo that, when the pianist finally enters with the rest of the group, leads to an unexpectedly knotty theme underpinned by a light-handed 6/8 pulse that, as Slagle switches back to his horn (this time, alto), becomes a relatively lighthearted trade-off between the saxophonist and Kuhn. When Slagle drops out and Moses and Swartz begin to swing even harder, Kuhn delivers another impressive solo of remarkable invention; his left and right hands often appearing to be working cross-purposes but, again, just an illusion as he always manages to push things out only to pull them back in...as does Slagle, in his subsequent alto solo. Swartz takes his first solo of the set, and it's a wondrously lyrical one that emphasizes his muscular tone and an ability to make every note resonate deeply.

Kuhn's "The Fruit Fly," which follows Swartz's beautiful ballad, "A Dance With the Wind," is a bright-tempo'd but, despite another knotty theme, more easygoing piece, with Slagle featured on flute; since this recording Slagle has gone on to a busy career with his own bands and as a guest, but it's a shame that, after appearing on a few early '80s recordings with Carla Bley and participating on Charlie Haden's classic Liberation Music Orchestra date, Ballad of the Fallen (1983), he was no longer to be found on the label.

While Non-Fiction is largely a group affair, with greater solo delineation than on Motility, Kuhn does take the first half of "Alias Dash Grapey" for a solo piano feature lasting five minutes and traveling from harmonic suspension and jagged free play to a touch of blues, before the group enters to close this 12-minute album-closer with a bit of near-acoustic funk that, revolves around a repetitive descending four note phrase. Slagle delivers another impressive solo before turning to a final feature for Kuhn that, swinging harder than anything else on Non-Fiction, demonstrates how, even in its first decade, ECM—a label often unjustly accused of being too Euro-focused—had no aversion to working within the confines of the American tradition; but clearly Eicher also wanted to see his artists go someplace else as well.

Clearly, based on Non-Fiction, the pianist and his group were happy to comply. Non-Fiction may be an album that could not have been made by a group unaware of the American tradition, but even so, these four musicians took the music to places few straight-ahead players were wont to go at the time. It's an album that begs to be released on CD, but even in its relative hard to find vinyl state, remains an album well worth Rediscovery as Kuhn's hottest date for the label.

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