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Three New Releases from Peter Kuhn

Dave Wayne By

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The beautiful thing is that I have a life of meaning and value before I pick up the horn. I’m not living a life predicated on the success of a record or the next gig. My life already has meaning, and when I pick up the horn, I’m picking it up as a whole person, and anything from there is just abundance. —Peter Kuhn
Clarinetist Peter Kuhn came up in the 1970s. In those days, one could count the number of modern jazz clarinet specialists on one hand: John Carter, Perry Robinson, Theo Jorgensmann, Alvin Batiste and—if you include the bass clarinet—Michel Pilz. So, one hand and a finger. Still associated with Benny Goodman, Dixieland and Swing, the clarinet was considered deeply uncool in the age of fusion. The uncompromising music of these brave souls did little to sway anyone who was not predisposed towards the oddball avant-garde end of the jazz spectrum. All of this changed, however, during the 1980s. Kuhn's work got documented on top-drawer European labels such as Black Saint and Hat Hut. Via a string of undeniably magical recordings for Gramavision and Black Saint, John Carter's genius as an instrumentalist and composer was finally recognized in glossy jazz periodicals. A new generation of clarinetists, led by Don Byron, started getting some attention which led to clarinet-led gigs and major label recordings with the likes of Jack DeJohnette and Bill Frisell. Tragically, as the stock of jazz clarinet rose, the avatars of that previous generation did not fare well at all. Carter died far too young, while Kuhn and Robinson slowly sank into even greater obscurity.

Several decades on, Kuhn has revitalized his music career while finding deeper meaning by practicing in the Plum Village Zen Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. These days, his main gig is helping others find freedom from addiction via the Prison Meditation Project of San Diego, California. This has added considerable depth to Kuhn's music in unexpected ways. As Kuhn himself puts it, "The beautiful thing is that I have a life of meaning and value before I pick up the horn. I'm not living a life predicated on the success of a record or the next gig. My life already has meaning, and when I pick up the horn, I'm picking it up as a whole person, and anything from there is just abundance."

Three recent releases on the No Business and pfMENTUM labels herald the ongoing resurgence of Kuhn's career, while revisiting and revealing past triumphs.

Peter Kuhn
No Coming, No Going
No Business Records
2016

This two CD set pairs a slightly altered, unedited reissue of Kuhn's self-released LP Livin' Right (Big City Records, 1979) with a previously unreleased duet date with drummer Denis Charles. The CD reissue restores two tracks, "Chi" and "Red Tape," to their original length and presents three tunes originally broken up between the two LP sides "Manteca," "Long Gone," and "Axistential" as a single continuous performance.

The performances here are striking, to say the least, though fairly typical of the offerings from New York's Loft Jazz scene of the 70s and 80s. Themes are brief and piquant; the emphasis is on jazz-based group improvisation. Kuhn's sound is rough-hewn and dense; sort of a clarinet analogue to Roswell Rudd's trombone. He plays a little tenor saxophone here, at times evoking the sound and feel of an older generation of saxophonists—Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins in particular—before spinning off into more familiar post-Coltrane / post-Ayler free-jazz tropes.

William Parker and Denis Charles are an electric combination, crackling with energy and inventiveness throughout. "Chi" is a showcase for Charles' distinctive and highly technical drumming. The unusual two brass-plus-clarinet front line succeeds on the completely opposite approaches of the two brass players. Toshinori Kondo's playing is resolutely abstract and non-jazzy. Like his present-day compatriot Natsuki Tamura, Kondo utilizes a wide range of extended techniques, some of which evoke Bill Dixon's sonic experiments, to generate tension and release. Though he eschews jazz licks and "normal" brass sounds almost completely during an extended solo on "Long Gone," Kondo's improvisation engages via its ingenious construction. The real surprise, though, is the amazingly fluent and acrobatically adept work of trumpeter Arthur Williams; ironically the only member of Kuhn's ensemble to sink into complete obscurity. Soloing largely with cup or Harmon mutes, Williams is on fire throughout "Manteca" (a Kuhn original not to be confused with the Dizzy Gillespie / Chano Pozo tune); duking it out with Kuhn's scrabbling clarinet over the bounding rhythms of Charles and Parker. In its original form, Livin' Right is a great LP. Here, restored to its original length and order, it is a bona fide classic of the Loft Jazz Era.

The duets with Charles are no less rewarding. Long underappreciated, Charles was one of the true maverick innovators of jazz drumming. These recordings find him at the pinnacle of his percussive powers, and his work throughout this two-CD set will startle those not already familiar. Like Albert Ayler, Charles opened up new possibilities by looking to roots music; specifically folk blues, Spirituals, and parade drumming. Both tribal and tuneful, Charles' well-orchestrated playing emphasizes melody and timbre while sparing nothing in terms of chops. In a way, Charles is the mirror image of William Parker, the bassist who is actually—deep down—a drummer. "Drum Dharma," dominated by an extended passage of super-fast Latin-ish rhythm, presents Charles as a drummer with the soul of a bassist. Charles doesn't just pound away with his right foot, he really plays the bass drum; muffling it, pressing the beater into the head, changing the pitch, letting it ring.

Of course, Kuhn is with Charles every step of the way. Throughout this session, his clarinets evoke the ancient, ethnic musics of Eastern Europe and Saharan Africa as much as they do modern, urban avant-jazz. He's especially effective in the upper registers of the B-flat clarinet though his piercing cries are, at times, a little too piercing. Things change quite palpably on "Headed Home," where Kuhn switches to tenor saxophone and wails unfettered like Ayler or Frank Wright over Charles' giddy polyrhythms.

Peter Kuhn
The Other Shore
No Business Records
2016

Fast forward 37 years. Kuhn has been hard at work, re-establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent avant-garde jazz clarinetists active today. Gigging around Los Angeles and his new hometown, San Diego, with the likes of Dan Clucas, Alex Cline, and Scott Walton, Kuhn's resurgence did not happen overnight though the near simultaneous appearance of these three albums might make one think otherwise. The Other Shore finds Kuhn in the company of his working trio which includes percussionist Nathan Hubbard and contrabassist Kyle Motl. From the outset, it is apparent that Kuhn's technique is more polished, and his improvising more resourceful and cunning than it was back in the 70s. The disc's eight tracks are, for free improvisations, relatively short; though each covers considerable stylistic ground. Kuhn, on tenor saxophone, sidles up to the blues on the fetching "Unstrung Heroes" before taking off into the free-bop stratosphere. The title track has something of the puckish, folksy sound of his pieces on Livin' Right, though the material, overall, is looser, free-er, and somewhat more abstract.

The slow unfolding of "No Coming, No Going" reveals a more patient, less mercurial player; one who pays close attention to those little gestures that alter the direction of a group improvisation. Hubbard's drumming is pure 21st Century stuff, quite unlike Charles,' though he's an equally distinctive foil for Kuhn's explorations. An accomplished composer who's also well-versed in contemporary orchestral percussion, indie rock, and more conventional types of jazz, Hubbard is capable of moving in any direction at any given moment. His perpetually swinging, unfettered free-bop patter is carefully calibrated to Motl's bass, particularly when it comes to dynamics and sound density. Motl, a relatively young player, is already an outstanding instrumentalist. Quite honestly, his playing is easily as accomplished and sensitive as William Parker's was on Livin' Right. "The Other Shore" is an fine example of the state-of-the-art in free improv in the early 21st Century.

Peter Kuhn / Dave Sewelson Quartet
Our Earth / Our World
pfMENTUM Records
2016

Recorded in live New York with running buddy Dave Sewelson, Our Earth / Our World pairs the reedmen with all-purpose drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Larry Roland. Best known for his work with Fast 'n' Bulbous and the Microscopic Septet, Sewelson's musical relationship with Kuhn goes back to the late 1970s. Kuhn appeared on Sewelson's debut LP with his 25 O'Clock Band, Synchro-incity (Theater for Your Mother Records, 1979) and Sewelson played on Kuhn's Ghost Of A Trance (Hat Hut Records, 1981). Both played in various groups with William Parker and Denis Charles.

Neither had encountered Cleaver or Roland prior to this performance. Nor had Cleaver ever played with Roland before. Unfortunately, the bootleg-quality recording obscures what was assuredly some very fascinating bass and drums interplay. Roland's bass is completely obscured behind Cleaver's resonant bass drum, which is inexplicably way out in front in the mix.

Kuhn and Sewelson are absolutely en fuego throughout the album's three extended tracks. They're basically wailing full-bore from the outset of "Our Earth" until around the 17-minute mark, where Kuhn switches to tenor saxophone and the quartet opens up a bit as the the two reedmen explore a lovely, canon-like melody. Roland, quite a bit more audible during this interlude, provides lush support. Interestingly, Cleaver's pulsing polyrhythms on "Our World" have more than a little bit of Denis Charles' tribal mojo to them. The pairing of Sewelson's sopranino and Kuhn's B-flat clarinet impart a keening North African flavor to the proceedings. Roland gets the spotlight on "It Matters." His extended arco solo provides a suitable lead-in for Kuhn's brooding clarinet. The piece unfolds slowly, but predictably ends in more dual reed pyrotechnics over some truly sly and subtle rhythm section work.

Our Earth / Our World is one of those live recordings that make one pine for the live performance. As good as the playing might have been, it's really hard to wrap one's head around the obvious flaws in recording quality.

Tracks and Personnel

No Coming, No Going: The Music of Peter Kuhn: 1978-79

CD 1 Tracks: Chi; Manteca / Long Gone / Axistential; Red Tape.

CD 1 Personnel: Peter Kuhn: B-Flat and bass clarinets; Arthur Williams: trumpet; Toshinori Kondo: trumpet, alto horn; Denis Charles: drums; William Parker: bass.

CD 2 Tracks: Stigma; Axistential; Drum Dharma; Headed Home.

CD 2 Personnel: Peter Kuhn: B-Flat and bass clarinets, tenor saxophone; Denis Charles: drums.

The Other Shore

Tracks: Is Love Enough; Causes and Conditions; Unstrung Heroes; Not Two; Volition; No Coming, No Going; The Other Shore; Beginning Anew.

Personnel: Peter Kuhn: alto and tenor saxophones, B-Flat and bass clarinets; Nathan Hubbard: drums; Kyle Motl: bass.

Our Earth / Our World

Tracks: Our Earth; Our World; It Matters.

Personnel: Peter Kuhn: alto and tenor saxophones, B-Flat Clarinet; Dave Sewelson: sopranino and baritone saxophones; Larry Roland: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.

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