Steve Kuhn: Shimmering Beauty

Maxwell Chandler By

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I was told a long time ago by somebody whose opinion I really respected that if you listen to all the great classical composers, they all were great melody writers.
This interview, originally published on March 2, 2009, is being reprinted to coincide with the release of Steve Kuhn's Mostly Coltrane (ECM, 2009).

Whether it is in his trio, collaborating with vocalists or accompanying an orchestra, pianist Steve Kuhn has always managed to effortlessly defy and combine genres. Whether it is an older recording or one of his newer albums, an inherent ability to create melodic-based beauty makes his playing and compositions instantly identifiable.

Chapter Index

  1. Studies
  2. Post Graduate
  3. Standards and Beyond
  4. Writing
  5. Songs Revisited
  6. Lyrics
  7. Technology
  8. October Suite
  9. Promises Kept
  10. Classical Inflections
  11. ECM and Dream Projects


Steve Kuhn All About Jazz: In your early years you studied under Madame Magaret Chaloff. Was your instruction geared towards playing and composition?

Steve Kuhn: No just piano technique; classical repertoire. I started when I was five years old but I met her when I was twelve; so I had studied [piano] for seven years. When I met her I had to unlearn things that I had learned the first seven years because she taught me the Russian school of technique. Basically enabled me to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do dynamically, or in terms of speed and getting a sound out of the instrument.

I really had to rethink everything and start almost from scratch when I started studying with her. She was really the seminal force in my life in terms of teachers and also she was a surrogate mother; very important in my life.

AAJ: Were you her only famous student?

SK: I don't know. I think there were a number of pianists who studied, not as long as I did but studied with her. I think Keith Jarrett had some interaction with her at some point; as did Chick Corea, because they were up in Boston.

What would happen is when different groups would be appearing in Boston for a week. Usually the pianists in the group, who knew of her and because her son was Serge Charloff the well-known baritone saxophonist, would come and visit with her. She would just listen to them play and give them some suggestions; but they didn't study with her formally. I know George Shearing, Oscar Peterson...a bunch of people and she always had some suggestions to make.

The only pianist who ever came to her just for a visit and played for her and she said "Get out of here. I have nothing I can show you," was Red Garland. That's because Red, not exactly the most creative pianist in the history of the music, but he had a touch. His touch was like, as she described it, a ball bouncing over the keys. It was absolutely perfect. For what he did it was exceptional. And she said "I really can show you anything or tell you anything."

AAJ: You received a music degree from Harvard was their an immediacy to the effect these studies had on your art or professional ambitions?

SK: I received a BA. It was just in liberal arts. I majored in music which didn't amount to much over the four years. I didn't go there for the music. I went there, was fortunate enough to get in and I got a liberal arts degree. I studied a lot of different kinds of things. Music was really not the reason I went. But every undergraduate had to major in something so I chose music theory which was four theory courses and two music history courses. So it was six courses in all over the four year period. That's really all it amounted to.

Steve KuhnPlus the fact that the music department at that time with the exception of Walter Piston with whom I enjoyed studying for one year; everybody else in the department, really for them music stopped after Stravinsky. They didn't really recognize any of the more contemporary stuff. Jazz, they thought, was the absolute worst thing you could possibly do. So I was the black sheep in the department for those four years; with the exception of Walter Piston, who was very relaxed.

I studied techniques of twentieth century composition with him for a year. Which was very informative and he was very easy to deal with. No bias on his part. Of course his compositions, he was certainly influenced by jazz. So we had a nice time.

AAJ: Initially, did either gigging or your studies play a more important part in your creative process or artistic identity at this time?

SK: I would say both. I was working through Harvard and I was working practically working, almost ever night. I had a trio and we opened at a coffee shop in Harvard Square. We were the house trio. We played as a trio for the most part. And then we would be hired occasionally by different people who were coming through single, like Coleman Hawkins or Chet Baker and they would need a rhythm section. So they would hire us as a trio. It was quite an education for us. So I was working a lot and doing as much studying as I possibly could, considering that I needed to sleep as well. It was always a conflict.


Post Graduate

AAJ: Post graduate, you were able to continue your studies when you won a Schaefer Beer scholarship to study at the Lennox School of Jazz. How did this differ from your previous academics?

SK: Yeah that was a three week thing in the summer of '59. It was a wonderful three weeks, the faculty and the students. It was like a big three week hang, if you will. Just hanging out with Gunther Schuller, George Russell, The Modern Jazz Quartet...these were on the faculty now. Herb Pomeroy was a faculty member, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham. And then the students: Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Gary McFarland were all students; so I had a chance to meet all these people and it was really very, very helpful in many ways.

Steve Kuhn Plus I came to New York right after that in September of that year and called all these people I had met; I said "I am here now, and if you hear of anybody who needs a pianist, I'm around, I'm available." So Kenny Dorham was one I called and he just happened to need somebody at that particular time and so he hired me. That was quite a good stroke of luck, fortuitous.

AAJ: Aside from the obvious excitement of your instructors and your classmates, were there any artistic cross-pollination of ideas occurring, with like Ornette Coleman or any one while you were there?

SK: Each student was put in a group and the leaders of the group...my particular group was led by Max Roach and John Lewis, they were our leaders. I was in a group with Ornette and Don Cherry.

For me this was somewhat of a dilemma because I had never experienced anything like that before, in terms of playing with musicians who improvise like that. I really didn't know quite what to do, the piano being more vertical in a sense (if you're going to be chording behind people.) So I just decided to lay out when they soloed. That seemed to me the best idea and I still say that to this day. It's really the best accompaniment for Ornette is piano-less groups. I know Paul Bley had played with him. There are ways to do it.

I was more interested in hearing what he was doing and just trying to figure out if there was something I could do, what it would be. But for the most part I just laid out when he played. It was really nice to just be part of that group, and his compositions were quite special.

It was a great environment. The whole three week experience, nobody got much sleep and it was really quite special. It was really just day and night; everybody is playing all the time and talking about music, it was really nice. Dizzy Gillespie came to visit and Milt Jackson was there. I will never forget it.


Standards and Beyond

AAJ: To the more casual jazz fan you are better known for your trio/standards format. Was there ever expectation or pressure from any label not to stray too far from that formula?

SK: There was no pressure, but when I would record for ECM all he [producer/label head Manfred Eicher] wanted was originals. I started recording for ECM in 1974. It has just been in the last 20-25 years that I have probably recorded more standards, if you will.

Part of it is because I grew up listening to a lot of these standards. They were part of my fiber, as you say. It was challenging for me to play them in the trio context and play them in a way that they were personalized as much as possible; even though they had been recorded by other people (and a lot of them had been recorded a lot of times). It was always challenging to make it as interesting as possible for me, as well as the people in the trio. So that was a challenge in and of itself.

Steve Kuhn

Plus writing, for me, has always been very difficult. When I have an assignment I can sit at the piano and grind it out but it doesn't come easy. Some people have a discipline where they can sit maybe two or three hours every day and compose; and however much they use eventually remains to be seen. But just to have that discipline every day to sit down and try to compose, I have never been able to do that. I work best when I have a deadline and a project to do.

In recent times I have recorded a lot for the Japanese label Venus and they want standards for the most part. I have done some originals for them but it is mostly standards. I have done maybe a dozen CDs for them; usually it's about one a year. But I enjoy doing both.

When we tour and when we are playing out, it is probably about 70% other peoples' music and 30% originals that make up the repertoire that I do now.

AAJ: With your own songs, do you find yourself taking a different approach in regards to where you want the emotion of your solo to take the listener perhaps having it be in the service of the song to a greater extant as opposed to the framework in which to build off of. What is this difference if any in where and how you solo in a standard versus original piece?

SK: These things change over the years. They just reissued these CDs and I listened to them once just because I have not listened to them in many years. I realized that some of the songs that I play now in the trio context I play differently. It has just evolved it was not a conscious thing. Just over the years, things change. So wherever they evolve, to which point; that's just the way it works out. It is just an organic process, as I feel with the standards as well. They change over time as well.



AAJ: When you write a song do you always know beforehand what size ensemble you are going to play it with at least initially?

SK: No, not really. There are certain instances when I decided I was going to write a song that I would put lyrics to, which for the most part I did, that the melodies would be singable.

Steve Kuhn I was told a long time ago by somebody whose opinion I really respected that if you listen to all the great classical composers, they all were great melody writers. And I always kept that in mind no matter what it is I am writing, whether I am writing for an instrumental situation or with a singer in mind. Just to have a melody that is a valid melody and I always try to go along with that as much as possible.

AAJ: Do you prefer to break in a new song live before recording it or do you look at live versus recorded as two completely separate animals?

SK: If I have the opportunity I would prefer to do it live first before recording it because it is invariably going to change from what I am proposing it as by myself to the trio context.

It changes from when I was by myself, alone with it to the trio and then it changes in the trio. So if I have the time to do that, I would prefer to play it live with the trio before recording it. It doesn't always work out that way.

Sometimes I will just have to say well we will do this or that. But even in the recording studio things will change, but I would prefer to have as much time with the song before I record it.

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