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Steve Kuhn: On Japan

Wayne Zade By

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Japanese promoters often request specific rhythm players with me. They know the names and whom they want. —Steve Kuhn
Steve KuhnSteve Kuhn's most recent CD, Mostly Coltrane (ECM, 2009), pays tribute to John Coltrane, having been the first pianist in the legendary saxophonist's quartet. He also has played as a sideman with Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer, Stan Getz and many others. Mostly Kuhn has led his own groups, largely trios with bassists including Buster Williams, Eddie Gomez and David Finck and drummers such as Al Foster and Billy Drummond.

Kuhn has a long association with ECM Records, which also released the three-disc box set Life's Backward Glances: Solo and Quartet in 2009, containing first-time CD issues of Ecstasy (1975), Playground (1980) and Motility (1977). Another ECM highlight is Promises Kept (2004), with strings orchestrated and conducted by Carlos Franzetti. Kuhn has also had long associations with Reservoir Records and Venus Records.

The focus of this interview is on Kuhn's travels to Japan and his perceptions of its people and jazz scene.

All About Jazz: Do you remember your first visit to Japan to play?

Steve Kuhn: Yes, it was in a duo with Steve Swallow in the mid-'80s. A promoter there, a pianist, had come to New York and lived here for a while. He thought I'd been to Japan before, and I hadn't; he wanted to be the first person to bring me over, and he was proud of the fact that he could do that. I was happy to do it. It was just Steve and I, and we did a couple of weeks of things that this guy had arranged.

Some of the concerts were recorded, which I knew about. Years later, I got notice from somebody at one of the companies in Japan, saying that they had tapes of three or four concerts. In particular, I think we did two in this town called Sendai. They wanted to know whether, after I heard the tapes, I would consent to have them released. To make a long story short, we went back and forth, and the tapes were surprisingly better than I thought. That was near the end of the tour; and they got two CDs out of them.

AAJ: Did they come out on an American label?

SK: No, just Japanese. Then it seemed that almost everything I'd ever done, they were interested in doing. There was a demo with six songs on it, and at that time, Helen Keane was my manager. She of course had managed Bill Evans. She was going to shop the demo around, but nothing ever materialized. I played just electric piano on that.

Then, a few years ago, a company in Japan reissued an LP that I did for Buddha Records, the first recording I did when I came back from living in Europe in '71or '72. It was the last recording that Gary McFarland wrote arrangements for. There was a string quartet, and myself, Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, and Airto Moreira. That was reissued in Japan. I made a copy of the six songs that were on this demo, and they added those on to what was on the LP. That came out in Japan only three or four years ago.

I had done another demo with Scott LaFaro and Pete LaRoca in 1960, and they put that out a couple of years ago as well. It's only 28 minutes of music, but they wanted to do it.

AAJ: So you are getting royalties on these things, everything's above aboard.

SK: [laughs slightly] Everything's above board. The royalty statements take a while to get here. I think they send them by carrier pigeon. It was not really a money-making situation, but I'm glad that the music is out there.

AAJ: When you've gone to Japan, were you there strictly to play, or were you able to have time to travel around the country, sightseeing, etc.?

SK: The first time, with Swallow, we had some days free in between concerts. So we did do more extensive traveling than I'm usually able to do now; the tours now are pretty jam-packed. But the first time, we went to a resort up in the northern part of Japan. It was in the fall, and I remember it was cold as hell. We were sleeping on the floor, on a mat, in a Japanese-style hotel. I didn't know how to work the radiator that was in the room; it was unbelievably cold, and I couldn't get warm. It was not too pleasant. They had these baths, for men and for women, and some were "co-ed," with the salts, the health stuff. I didn't go in, but Swallow went in, along with the promoter who was with us. So I did see a fair amount of the country on that first tour.

Steve KuhnAAJ: You visited cities and towns both?

SK:Yes.

AAJ: And the concerts were in clubs and concert halls both? You played mainly clubs?

SK: I'd say maybe 70 percent of the concerts were in clubs.

AAJ:Have you been asked to teach in Japan?

SK: No. I do have Japanese students here in New York, but I haven't taught in Japan. Sometimes students will come for a month and take a few lessons, and then go back. Over the years, I've had quite a few Japanese students.

AAJ: When you play in Japan, do you play mainly with American musicians?

SK: I always bring my trio.

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