In addition to his ability to blend chameleon-like into the exigencies of another’s group, Kuhn has added comic relief in his own hilarious songs like "The Zoo" ("Ham / How I love to eat ham. / Vultures don’t give a damn. / Meat / Monkeys eat with their feet. / So when I’m all alone / Left with only a bone / On top of the sky / Birds are wondering why".) Beyond the fancy of the concept empathizing with animals in cages, aloft and atop trees Kuhn’s zoologically inspired chord changes are gorgeous. That’s one side of Steve Kuhn. Another side emerges on the ECM albums that he has recorded, particularly his latest one, Promises Kept, serene and crystalline in its peacefulness as Kuhn is accompanied by strings orchestrated by Carlos Franzetti. Then there’s Steve Kuhn the accompanist as he performs on those special occasions with Sheila Jordan, close friends whose mutual understanding carries over into their music. Steve Kuhn adapts to another set of surroundings as the solo recording artist at Maybeck Recital Hall. And Steve Kuhn occasionally has stretched out in piano trio recordings, sometimes with David Finck and Billy Drummond on Reservoir. Too infrequently, Kuhn recorded with Ron Carter and Al Foster, first on Black Hawk’s Life’s Magic The Vanguard Date on Owl in the mid-1980s. Fortunately, once again on Blue Note, Kuhn is releasing an album with Carter and Foster. Such a wise choice Blue Note has made.
The circumstances of Kuhn’s latest recording involve a live set at Birdland in July, 2006. The engagement not only marked the arrival of Kuhn’s trio for a memorable event; it recalled an event from 20 years before that critics and listeners still remember: the trio’s week of performing at the Village Vanguard in 1986.
Certainly the musicians themselves remember the magic that occurred there. While their active careers prevented them from reviving it for a couple decades, the deed indeed was done, much to the delight of the enthusiasts who attended the performances. Kuhn chose to revisit some of the music from their earlier albums: Kuhn’s "Clotilde" and Carter’s "Little Waltz" from The Vanguard Date and "Two by Two" and "Jitterbug Waltz" from Life’s Magic. Still, the performance includes much new music to signify the changes that all three members of the trio have experienced since they last recorded.
Even though Kuhn is a pianist of many minds, and wide-ranging imagination, for the most part he chooses to swing on Live at Birdland, though the ballads he plays, like "Stella by Starlight" (dedicated to his mother,) offer iridescence, the illumination they provide enhanced by the evolving colors of each piece rather than by darkness or shading. The ten tracks are uniformly excellent, each one a lesson in the infinitude of possibilities offered by a jazz piano trio when the trio consists of supreme musicians like these. It is impossible to declare that one track is "better" than another. All that one can offer is an opinion, and my favorites are the medley of "La Plus Que Lente" with "Passion Flower" and "Jitterbug Waltz." One demonstrates the delicacy of Kuhn’s touch as a flowing melody evolves into a pulsating connected song of chorus-by-chorus heightening of intensity. The other track makes clear not only Kuhn’s technical mastery as he personalizes Fats Waller’s composition, cascading arpeggios showering through the piece, which Kuhn alternates between an easy jazz waltz and a four-four swing.
Reportedly, there were no rehearsals or arrangements to the music of Live at Birdland. Rather, Kuhn, Carter and Foster valued the spontaneity that may arise as they push one another into unforeseen directions, discovering new pathways from the urgings of the other two. That unplanned exploration of harmonic possibilities could account for the surprises we hear along the way, like Kuhn’s sprinkling of "Clotilde," quite a relaxing waltz, with handfuls of broken chords or pulling back on the rhythm with staggered laying out of the melody. The effortless with which the trio plays "Confirmation" altering the melody to include quotes like "Three Blind Mice" or Schubert’s "March Militaires," laying back to allow another trio member to take the lead or converting melody into gales of notes makes evident the fact that these are top-shelf jazz masters drawing upon lifetimes of musical experiences.
There are a few exceptional piano jazz trios recording now such as Keith Jarrett’s or Bill Charlap’s or Jason Moran’s. Despite not having recorded for 20 years, certainly Steve Kuhn’s is another one.