By the time pianist Steve Kuhn began his eight-year relationship with ECM in '74, his reputation was already well on its way. Since emerging in the early '60s, the classically-trained but improvisation-minded Kuhn had worked with artists like Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, and John Coltrane. He released two recordings under his own name in '66: the trio record Three Waves and The October Suite, which, with its Third Stream leanings, was surprisingly antithetical to the freer direction that its label, Impulse!, was disposed to at the time. They would ultimately prove important to Kuhn's evolution in the '70s.
Three Waves was significant in that it also featured bassist Steve Swallowpart of a musical relationship that would last well into the '70s. But perhaps more importantly, The October Suite was the album that brought Kuhn to the attention of a young Manfred Eicher who would start ECM a few years later; the label that has gone on to create its own highly specific musical aesthetic. Kuhn had released eight albums as a leader by the time Eicher signed him and released Trance, his debut for the label in '75previously available in a limited run as an expensive Japanese import, but now finally seeing international release on CD. But he'd never before been afforded the opportunity to make an album completely devoted to his own writing.
Trancewhich also features, along with Swallow, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Sue Evansis as unpredictable as it is compelling. The title track's open-ended and gentle lyricism reflects the label's approach to chamber jazz at the time, while the aptly-titled "Change of Face" features Kuhn's electric piano on a Latin-informed theme in the same general space as pianist Chick Corea's own ECM recording Return to Forever. DeJohnette's fluid approach is the perfect contrast to Swallow's personal take on swing during Kuhn's in-context solo.
Even more mercurial is the brief "Squirt" which dissolves into a freer exchange after a complex opening that navigates all kinds of thematic and rhythmic twists and turns. Evans peppers Kuhn's high-register flurries with percussive coloring ranging from delicate hand percussion to tympani. The rubato "The Sandhouse" is yet another directional shift, with Kuhn's abstract impressionism alluding to the classical background of his youth, where he would "improvise and syncopate the classical repertoire." The samba-inflected "Something Everywhere" returns the recording to solid ground, but it's only a temporary respite, with "The Young Blade" and the solo "Silver" demonstrating remarkable stream-of-consciousness breadth and a formidable technique that always remains means to a more creatively conceptualized end.
While clearly of its time, Trance nevertheless remains fresh thirty years later. While Kuhn returned to the label briefly in '96 for Remembering Tomorrow and again for 2004's lush project with strings, Promises Kept, the release of Trance on CD brings new perspective to those later recordings, and to a pianist for whom wider acclaim has curiously never equaled his reputation amongst more "in the know" jazz fans.
Trance; A Change of Face; Squirt; The Sandhouse; Something Everywhere; Silver; The
Young Blade; Life's Backward Glance.
Steve Kuhn: piano, electric piano; Steve Swallow: electric bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums; Sue