On March 27-30, 1986, Steve Kuhn played the Village Vanguard with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster. This noteworthy gig produced two live recordings, The Vanguard Date
(Owl, 1986) and Life's Magic
Twenty years later Kuhn reconvened the group for a four-night run in midtown, and the resultant live recording, Steve Kuhn Trio Live at Birdland (Blue Note, 2007), not only captures in bytes the overdue reunion but marks Kuhn's debut with Blue Note Records.
Kuhn met recently with All About Jazz contributor Suzanne Lorge at his home in Dobbs Ferry to discuss the upcoming release.
AAJ: How did your collaboration with Ron Carter and Al Foster first come about?
SK: In the mid-'80s I had a manager who said, "Make a wish list of the venues you'd like to play anywhere in the world and list the musicians you'd like to play with. The Vanguard was at the top of the listto work there as a leader. I'd already worked there as a sideman with different people. Ron [Carter] and Al [Foster] were my top choices on their respective instruments. She got us into the Vanguard in 1985, I guess, was the first time, and we worked there three or four times before the recordings were done in 1986. To her credit, my manager made it happen. I was really surprised. So that's how the trio came about....It seemed to me back then it would work, and it did. And it worked on this new recording certainly.
AAJ: How has your relationship with Carter and Foster changed since 1986?
SK: We've all mellowed and gotten better at what we do and settled into a nice musical lifestyle, as it were. I know I've certainly improved a hell of a lot in the last twenty years.
AAJ: In what way, would you say?
SK: Just in terms of comfort within myself, as a person and as a musician. It takes awhile. There were some demons I had to exorcise....But over the twenty years I've become much more comfortable in my skin, with my playing, and with the music that we played, some of which we did record back then. I re-recorded [some of those tunes] on this CD, like "Jitterbug Waltz," "Clotilde," and "Two By Two." Then there were some we've never played before or some we had played but didn't record. These songs have evolved for me, just personally, over the years...so they're quite different than they were twenty years ago.
AAJ: What type of demons have you struggled with?
SK: They've been both personal and musical....Four years ago I had a quintuple bypassheart surgery. The cliché is that you realize what mortality is. The experience didn't change drastically the way I thought about things, but it certainly helped me to take it one day at a time. I'd never had any kind of surgery before, let alone major surgery. It's a life-changing experience. Now I'm just opening up and making myself accessible to different things that I didn't do before...And over the years I've been finding my own musical voice more clearly. It's always been there, but it just keeps evolving and evolving and will continue to evolve.
AAJ: Can you describe that musical evolution?
SK: When I was younger I was experimenting with a lot of different things musically, just to say that I'd done it. I was curious about certain things and went into certain areas, and as I've gotten older in many ways I've come back to my roots, where I grew up, which was listening to bebop. That's really where my roots are, though I certainly listened to music from earlier than thatswing era stuff, boogie woogie, ragtime, and Dixieland.
Now I'm coming back to bebop, but with a personal expression of that. The things that I do are more advanced than that rhythmically and harmonically, but [bebop] is engrained very deeply in me. My music came back to that very naturally, having to do somewhat with the repertoire that we played. There was a time when I played only originals, and now it's seventy percent standards and thirty percent originals. But the standards are very carefully chosen, and they're done in a way that is unique to the trio or to me. Not that I plan how to improvise them.
AAJ: What do you look for when you select your tunes?
When I was young I learned a lot of the songs by going through page after page in fake books and by listening to records. I started playing professionally when I was thirteen and worked with a lot of older musicians and learned a great deal from them. So I've always had a large repertoire of standard songs. Given that, for me the song has to resonate melodically and the harmony has to fall naturally. Form doesn't matter too muchbut the melody and harmony have to speak to me.
And I try to keep the guys interested, so we're not playing the same material night after night. For this recording we picked maybe twenty songs and we recorded the same twenty songs each night, and from those it came down to ten for the CD and two more for iTunes. I really had trouble paring it down to the ten. Usually I'm supercritical, and so many things worked out well here it was difficult to eliminate some altogether. But who knows? Maybe they'll come out one day.
AAJ: What did you look for specifically in the chosen performance?
SK: It was about the energy, how I felt the three of us were performing together. For me the basic premise of a trio is the musical conversation. Theoretically I'm the leader, but we're all in it at the same level as far as I'm concerned. And the music can go any way. I'm playing and Ron does something that catches my ear and I'll go with that, or Al does something....It's not about me and accompaniment. The essence of improvised music is conversation in a small group context....I learned that early on from two triosthe Ahmad Jamal Trio, which I heard growing up, and the Bill Evans Trio. Those two trios defined for me what musical conversation is, and I've kept that in mind all these years.
AAJ: What do you look for in your musical counterparts?
SK: [The musicians I work with] are all extremely talented....and they know the history of the music. That's the most important thing. You can hear in their playing that they really know where all this stuff came from, that it didn't start with John Coltrane in 1965. With this trio, Al and Ron, because we're all of an age, with similar musical backgroundsI shouldn't say it's easier, but it's different. The trio runs itself. Sometimes with [with younger players] I have to be more of a leader, in a sense. Which I don't mind doing....I learn from the younger players all the time....It's a win-win situation.
AAJ: In your five decades of performing, you've seen so much happen in jazz. Where do you see it headed as an art form?
SK: I think the music may have run its course, frankly, and what we hear now is retro, the younger musicians going back to bebop. There hasn't been anything new, or evolutionary, or revolutionary. There's nothing wrong with that. Certainly there's enough in [jazz] to go on for years and years and years. Now younger musicians are rediscovering stuff, and that's all great. Some of these young kids play their asses off. But in terms of innovation, I haven't heard it. Usually there is a musician who'll come along and change the face of the music like Miles or Bird or Coltrane or Ornette did. Who today has really taken the music to the next step? I would ask that question.
AAJ: Tell us about what it's like to be with Blue Note.
SK: I've been listening to Blue Note Records for many years, as a kid and in high school, and at this stage of my life, to sign with Blue Note Records....I told Bruce Lundvall [CEO of Blue Note Records], it almost brought me to tears. It is really quite special.
Steve Kuhn, Live at Birdland (Blue Note, 2007)
Steve Kuhn, Seasons of Romance (Postcards, 1995)
Steve Kuhn, Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 13 (Concord, 1990)
Steve Kuhn, Mostly Ballads (New World, 1984)
Steve Kuhn/Sheila Jordan, Last Year's Waltz (ECM, 1981)
Pete LaRoca, Basra (Blue Note, 1965)