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Mostly Coltrane by Steve Kuhn

In the realm of speculation of might-have-beens there is Steve Kuhn’s eight-week collaboration in 1960 with John Coltrane, along with bassist Steve Davis and drummer Pete La Roca as Coltrane was starting to form his own quartet. What if Kuhn had remained with Coltrane instead of another young pianist, McCoy Tyner? From the evidence presented on Mostly Coltrane, it appears that, even though Kuhn is as immersed in Coltrane’s sound as Tyner, Kuhn would have shaped the feel of the quartet as surely as did Bill Evans with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. For Kuhn too offers a lighter, classically derived touch, sometimes making his points through implication instead of through demonstrative force. Even so, spiritual intensity is suggested deceptively within the sketches that Kuhn limns, making unnecessary slashing and broad brushstrokes when a single line will do. Joe Lovano, this generation’s leading tenor saxophonist due to his long string of creatively conceived and executed Blue Note albums, joins Kuhn in re-creating the passionate entreaties of Coltrane as he sought for deeper meaning in the music he explored. However, unlike saxophonists in other such tributes, Lovano is no Coltrane imitator, simulating the inspired musical stream of consciousness that occurred during his spiritual quests. Instead, Lovano, consistent in his own saxophonic identity, sounds like.... Lovano.... playing music associated with Coltrane. In any case, Mostly Coltrane is a Steve Kuhn album with the pianist front and center as he leads his own quartet of consummate musicians.

Indeed, Kuhn plays "I Want to Talk about You" as a number for a piano trio, and Lovano lays out as Kuhn performs once again one of the songs on which he accompanied Coltrane. However, as one listens to Kuhn develop the improvisational choruses to that song, it becomes clear that Kuhn has his own recognizable style, evident on his other albums as a leader or on those where he’s a sideman with talent like Sheila Jordan or Stan Getz. The grace notes, the graceful modulations, the depth of the resonating bass notes he chooses to anchor his playing, the apt voicings, the gossamer cresdendoes, the assured melodic basis throughout, the whole-tone accents he tucks into the rests they all signify Steve Kuhn elements that naturally flow throughout his performances, sometimes more impressionistic than ardently spiritual.

The album’s first track, the appropriately chosen "Welcome," notes attainment of serenity, glimmering with Kuhn’s treble-clef coruscations. Kuhn and Lovano calmly transmit the self-fulfillment inherent in the piece in almost rubato fashion as drummer Joey Baron lightly establishes a rumbling presence. Kuhn combines the impressionistic and the spiritual impulses with a subdued, peaceful flow and an occasional intensity of build-up (and whose chords remind me of his introduction to Jordan’s "Ballad for Miles"). But Kuhn does immerse himself wholly into the Coltrane-associated passion for playing on tunes like the ominously trilling "Song of Praise," minor-keyed and portentous until Lovano states the theme, still drenched in dark chords and bleating overtones and throaty tenor sax force without meter for the first two minutes (when Kuhn’s trills again set up the mood for controlled lack of restraint). Excitement ensues through the course of Kuhn’s solo, unmistakably of his own sound and not borrowing from anyone else, before Lovano even comes in.

Rather than restrict the material only to the music of Kuhn’s early sixties tenure to Coltrane, he includes less frequently heard pieces from the posthumously released Stellar Regions. This includes the roiling, rippling atonal certainly un-calm puissance of "Configuration," a non-stop sonic exclamation which continues without a second of respite until Baron’s abrupt stop, mirroring the way he began the performance. "Jimmy’s Mode" is the other piece from Stellar Regions, which settles into a quieter place, as if Lovano issues a call of awakening, still without meter but built upon a more defined harmonic structure from which the prayerfulness issues. In addition, the piece allows bassist David Finck to contribute equally to the quartet’s obeisance to Coltrane’s influence and power.

In addition to "I Want to Talk about You," Kuhn also plays two other songs on which he accompanied Coltrane, "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" and "Central Park West." "Thousand Eyes" is conventional in its pace and changes, but still enjoyable when Lovano takes over the soloing opportunity, trading Kuhn’s galloping with Lovano’s own octaved start-up. And Lovano takes the lead on "Central Park," allowing Kuhn the luxury of sitting back and providing the gorgeous chords that fill in the harmonic implications of the melody.

Mostly Coltrane succeeds not so much as a tribute album, but rather because of the recognizable talent of its musicians, who take Coltrane’s material and play it not as Coltrane and Tyner did, but as Kuhn and Lovano do.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Steve Kuhn
  • CD Title: Mostly Coltrane
  • Genre: Progressive
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: ECM
  • Tracks: Welcome, Song Of Praise, Crescent, I Want To Talk About You, The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, Living Space, Central Park West, Like Sonny, With Gratitude, Configuration, Jimmy’s Mode, Spiritual, Trance
  • Rating: Five Stars
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