For the past several years, the Reservoir label’s New York Piano Series has been the forum for some of the best piano trio records in recent memory. Although earlier presenters in the cycle included Kenny Barron, Rob Schneiderman, John Hicks, and Hod O’Brien, Reservoir has really hit a gold mine by signing on Steve Kuhn. Although not as well known as let’s say Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan, Kuhn is equally proficient at exploiting the piano trio format for all it’s worth.
A superb follow-up to his previous two Reservoir sides, Dedication and Countdown (both come highly recommended if you don’t already own them), the trio assembled for The Best Things is a working band with David Finck on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. These three men were all on the same page after the week in the clubs that preceded this recording session and you can tell that they delved into the material, hand-selecting new phrases and developing a three-way conversation that reveals true craftsmanship of the highest order.
A highly original player, Kuhn’s style is characterized by a synthesis that takes the best of the be-bop language and borrows emotionally and structurally from such contemporary composers as Bartok, Milhaud, Stravinsky, and the like. A case in point, Kuhn’s marvelous re-working of Bird’s “Confirmation,” which opts for an opening that recalls a proper British march (maybe Percy Grainger?), only later to ignite with furious bop-inflected passages and Drummond’s solo fireworks. By contrast, “A Portrait of Jennie” is delicate bliss, Kuhn’s statements unfolding with sophistication and poise. The closing “Adagio” also should be mentioned, as it makes thoughtful use of Luciana Souza’s wordless vocals, Norma Winstone’s comparable work with Kenny Wheeler being an obvious influence.
Great jazz, such as this, always maintains its longevity because each new hearing reveals added nuances and further pleasures. While forgiving the obvious pun, The Best Things certainly lives up to its title while currently holding its position as one of the best piano trio discs to come along in 2000.