Steve Kuhn Trio w/ Joe Lovano Mostly Coltrane ECM Records
Although he's spent most of his career focusing on interpreting the music of others, pianist Steve Kuhn's albums for the ECM label have largely been about his small but significant repertoire of original music. Which makes Mostly Coltrane a real anomaly by comparison to earlier works like those reissued in the three-CD box set Life's Backward Glances - Solo and Quartet (ECM, 2009). Still, Kuhn has a perhaps little-known connection that makes this set of, well, mostly material either composed or covered by John Coltrane a stronger fit than might be expected. Kuhn gigged briefly with the iconic saxophonist in the early months of 1960, a transitional time for Coltrane. But instead of focusing on the repertoire Kuhn played with him, the pianist addresses a bigger picture, ranging from the more mainstream standards Coltrane was performing at the time of Kuhn's employment to the extreme experimentation so definitive of the saxophonist's later years, prior to his untimely death in 1967 at the age of 40.
Kuhn reunites his trio from Remembering Tomorrow (ECM, 1996)ubiquitous drummer Joey Baron and bassist David Finck, a longtime partner who also appeared on the pianist's last release for ECM, 2004's string-driven Promises Kept. But to make the connection to Coltrane complete, Kuhn also enlists saxophonist Joe Lovano. The beauty of Mostly Coltrane is that while the album is, indeed, reverential to the spirit of Coltrane, stylistically it's all Kuhn and his quartet.
Kuhn plays with a more delicate touch than Coltrane's longest-standing pianist, McCoy Tyner, so even when he heads into the swinging modal territory that Tyner carved out so singularly on "Song of Praise," first heard on Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!, 1962), it possesses none of Tyner's forceful, block-chord attack. Instead, with Lovano similarly eschewing Coltrane's infamous "sheets of sound" without sacrificing any of the passion, Kuhn plays it more impressionistically, although there's nothing implicit about the turbulent underpinning created by Finck and Baron.
Still, even Baron mainly plays it less hard-hitting than his Coltrane counterpart, the late Elvin Jones. While Jones would boil over on the title track to Crescent (Impulse!, 1964), Baron largely opts for a simmer on Kuhn's rubato arrangement, with greater power only occasionally demonstrated and, instead, more left to implication. Even when the quartet shoots for greater extremes on "Configuration," from Stellar Regions (Impulse!, 1967)including an incendiary opening duet between Baron and Lovanoit feels somehow more truly collaborative and less a pure vehicle for Coltrane's by then truly out-of-this-world explorations.
Kuhn's motivic ability to build solos from the smallest of building blocks has always been a strength, and here he excels at taking music so strongly associated with Coltrane that it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing it, not just making it fit within his overall discography, but specifically within his ECM work. His own compositional contributionsthe new "With Gratitude" and a retake of the title track to Trance (ECM, 1975), both solo vehicles for the pianistfit just as comfortably in the overall program as do the two standards. These are Billy Eckstine's gentle ballad, "I Want to Talk About You" and the enduring Bernier/Brainin classic "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," taken here at a fast clip.
Lovano is in equally fine form, capturing Coltrane's shimmering intensity on "Spiritual," but playing it on the Hungarian tarogato rather than the soprano saxophone towards which Coltrane became so disposed in his later years. He shines in the most understated of ways on a short but sweet duet with Kuhn on Coltrane's often-recorded and elegant ballad "Central Park West," from Coltrane's Sound (Atlantic, 1960), the two seemingly joined at the hip.
Baron's ability to be both subtle and powerfulsometimes instantaneouslymakes him an equal partner and superb foil for Kuhn's interpretive and sometimes sparse approach. Both players are capableas is Lovanoof fervent energy and expansive dynamics, but they avoid the relentlessness that Coltrane was demonstrating by the time of Stellar Region's "Jimmy's Mode," which also features a rare but impressive solo from Finck.
Mostly Coltrane is the ideal homage. There's no shortage of the intrepid exploratory spirit (and spiritual inspiration) that's made Coltrane a cultural icon for generations of musicians and fans, but equally there's no missing the personal qualities that define Kuhn and his group. A rare opportunity to hear Kuhn outside the trio setting he's largely preferred for most of his career, Mostly Coltrane may not appear, on first glance, to jibe with his original composition-focused discography for ECM, but in its absolute retention of the markers that have defined his work for the label, it's nothing short of a perfect fit.
Tracks: Welcome; Song of Praise; Crescent; I Want to Talk About You; The Night Has a Thousand Eyes; Living Space; Central Park West; Like Sonny; With Gratitude; Configuration; Jimmy's Mode; Spiritual; Trance.
Steve Kuhn: piano; David Finck: double-bass; Joey Baron: drums; Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone, taragato (12).