Kuhn/Swallow/Baron in Montreal
Since first hearing the Steve Kuhn Quartet in Boston in the mid-‘70’s, I’ve made a point of seeing the pianist as often as possible, and this week had the pleasure of attending his concert with Steve Swallow and Joey Baron at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Kuhn’s Tuesday night performance was as close to perfect as perfect should get, and the trio’s every note and gesture was a delight, much as it proved to be for a Toronto couple we’d met earlier that day over breakfast. Middle-aged but new to jazz, when they asked for a festival recommendation, I didn’t hesitate to mention Kuhn, and twelve hours later there they were on line at Gesu. I’d make the same suggestion to anyone else, no matter how new they may be to the music. For Kuhn, Swallow, and Baron play tunes with a deliberateness and sensitivity to one another that makes the magical art of improvisation take shape right before your eyes-- and ears.
Kuhn’s connections with Swallow and Baron run deep. He first worked with Swallow in Art Farmer’s Quartet over fifty years ago, and he’s made music with Baron for nearly half that time. In past interviews that I’ve conducted with Kuhn, he’s described Swallow as “the brother I never had,” and credits the bassist with spurring him nearly 45 years ago to begin composing works of his own. Kuhn, in turn, introduced Swallow on Tuesday as “a great composer,” and played his originals “Remember” and “Ladies in Mercedes.” When an audience member asked Swallow If he remembered what color the Benz was that might have inspired his montuno, he wryly answered, “I wasn’t looking at the car.”
(Joey Baron, Steve Swallow, Steve Kuhn/ECM Records))
Notwithstanding their long ties, it wasn’t until last year’s ECM release, Wisteria, that the threesome first worked as a trio. This week’s concert reflected what Kuhn said a year ago about the experience of recording together: “The music felt like it played itself. There was nothing to prove to each other or anyone else. We just played the music as it felt right to us, with a lot of interplay and affection. What was captured reflects where we are in our lives, really.”
Affection and interplay were more than evident onstage at Gesu. Kuhn bookended the 90-minute concert with bebop classics by Tadd Dameron, “Super Jet, ”and Charlie Parker, “Confirmation," jazzmen who’ve influenced him since his early teens when he began working around Boston with baritone saxophone legend Serge Chaloff. Kuhn’s ballad offering was a superbly-crafted reimagining of “Stella By Starlight,” and the trio sounded sublimely locked-in on a handful by the pianist, including his deep blues, “Two by Two,” “A Likely Story,” “Trance,” “Oceans in the Sky,” and “The Zoo,” the latter complete with a vocal by the composer. (Sheila Jordan was a member of Steve’s quartet when the absurdly funny “Zoo” was premiered in 1979.)
We’ll hear a set by Kuhn in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode, including a 1995 duo recording with Swallow of “Ladies in Mercedes.” And by all means keep your eye out for the trio. Kuhn and Baron are at Green Mill in Chicago this weekend, but not with Swallow, so catching them together is a rarity. They made the drive to Montreal this week more than worthwhile. Till next time, you can always listen to them on Wisteria. The bulk of Kuhn's work as a composer has been documemted on ECM; his output for Concord Jazz, Reservoir, Sunnyside, Owl and other U.S., European, and Japanese labels has featured a broader mix of originals and standards.
Kuhn's no stranger to Montreal, nor to the classical repertoire. Here he is last summer at L'Astral improvising on J.S. Bach's Minuet No. 4 in G.