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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.

AAJ: Does it seem to you that American jazz musicians typically bring their own bands to Japan?

SK: Yes. I think so.

AAJ: Many jazz musicians in Japan have studied in the States, and then gone back to Japan to play. There's a pretty healthy club scene in Japan that features Japanese players and Japanese bands.

SK: I believe so, yes.

AAJ: Yet many Japanese musicians have been frank about struggling with issues of originality in jazz.

Steve KuhnSK: We see this even in the Yamaha pianos. In a sense, they've copied the Steinways, but they've improved them in their incredible durability; they hold the tuning much better than a Steinway or any pianos in the world. It is a central part of the Japanese culture to study the models of other countries and to refine, elaborate, advance. The Japanese have an incredible love of jazz, and they love other types of popular music as well, and classical music too.

AAJ: Even gospel music.

SK: Yes. But it's not indigenous to them, and so to be innovative is a huge challenge. But the Japanese are undeniably talented and creative. Finding your own voice in jazz is a struggle for any musician.

AAJ: The struggle for them is to locate a central Japanese musical tradition, or soulful base, like the blues, in various forms of folk music.

SK: They have the scales. The challenge is to incorporate the original roots. The same is true with European musicians. To find those cultural roots and fuse them with jazz techniques is the creative problem.

AAJ: One Japanese guy who might come to mind is Masabumi Kikuchi, the pianist. His sense of space, of spareness, is unique.

SK: I know of him, but I've never heard him play.

AAJ: He works a lot with Gary Peacock over here, and with Paul Motian. The group is called, or was called, Tethered Moon.

SK: Does he live in New York?

AAJ: Maybe a few months of the year, yes. And then he returns to Japan.

SK: He seems like one of the exceptions, then.

AAJ: Let's switch gears a bit. How did you begin your association with Venus Records in Japan?

SK: A guy named Todd Barkan was involved in that. He gets the talent together for Lincoln Center, Dizzy's Coca-Cola Club there. He had been working with Venus, and the owner, Tetsuo Hara, since the label started. My name came up, and Mr. Hara said he would like to record me. All the recordings have been done in New York. Mr. Hara comes to New York from Tokyo, and he usually does three or four projects at a time when he's here, for about two weeks. Todd Barkan is the co-producer. These trips have become regular events, but due to the economy, nothing has happened for about a year now.

AAJ: Can you comment on the effects of the economy?

SK: [shrugs] Well, they're not good. Anywhere.

AAJ: Venus seems to have a very special interest in recording pianists.

SK: Mr. Hara likes piano trios. Very few vocalists appear on Venus, and there are a few horn players. It's mostly piano trios. Venus is an independent company. He runs it by himself, and his daughter is helping him now. He's a very nice man, a gentleman, very well dressed—just a really nice guy. But I know he's been having some financial issues, and trying to get some more money from backers, and that's the reason why there's been somewhat of a hiatus in recording activities.

AAJ: Don't some of the Venus recordings get rereleased in the States?

SK: For several of mine, Mr. Hara worked out a deal with Sunnyside Records here in New York, and they reissued them. For some of them, they had to change the covers—have you seen some of the Venus covers [laughs]? They're very explicit, female forms.

AAJ: People might have thought that was your idea.

Steve KuhnSK: [laughs] I asked him a couple of years ago, Why do you have this? Every time a record comes out over here, they have to put another cover on it. And he said, "Because it sells, it sells in the Japanese market." That was his answer.

Anyway, Sunnyside released three of the Venus albums I had done. Mr. Hara decided not to do any more with Sunnyside because the Sunnyside records were flowing back into Japan and were selling for much less than the Venus versions. So businesswise, it made no sense.

He keeps saying to me he really wants to open an office here in New York, and get good distribution here. For the time being, I understand the whole Venus catalogue is available on Amazon.com. That's the way to go, at this point, for those who want to get any of the Venus recordings.

AAJ: Let's talk a little about another label, ECM. You've had a very long relationship with ECM. How do your ECM recordings do in Japan? Do you have a sense of that? I would think that the Japanese would be crazy about them—the very high production standards, the ECM "sound."

SK: Oh, they do pretty well. ECM has an office there, and a distributor. From time to time, I meet the ECM staff people over there, and they often come to the venues where we play,

AAJ: This year, ECM released the new Mostly Coltrane, and a reissued three-CD box set of three of your albums from 1975 to 1980, Life's Backward Glances. Will you be touring in Japan to promote these releases?

Steve KuhnSK: No, at least nothing has been set up yet. I've spoken with the guy who usually brings us over, and he wanted me to come over in January, 2010. But I just haven't followed up on that yet. He wanted me to bring Billy Drummond and George Mraz over.

AAJ: So will the Japanese promoters sometime ask for a specific rhythm section?

SK: This promoter does, based on his clients' preferences. When I was over there last year, I was with Eddie Gomez and Billy Drummond. I've been there with Mraz before; I can't even remember everybody. I've been there with David Finck on bass as well. The Japanese do tend to go for bigger names. That is more appealing to them.

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