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Steve Kuhn

Sometimes disconcerting, sometimes dissonant, he can be off-putting... but impossible to ignore his incredible sensitivity.

Sharing of my personal meeting with Mr. Stephen Lewis Kuhn.

Published on january 20, 2022
by Paul

Steve Kuhn on the back cover "Trance"
© Photo : Odd Geir Sæther

Who is Steve Kuhn?

It was in my early years of learning jazz that I was able to discover Stephen Lewis Kuhn, a renowned pianist from Brooklyn. I can not believe that his name never made it to the top of the billboards of the biggest jazz clubs.

However, he played with the biggest names in the industry: he was notably John Coltrane's sideman in his legendary quartet before being replaced by McCoy Tyner.

Bio et discography

Steve Kuhn was born on March 24, 1938 in New York. Jazz pianist, composer, arranger, conductor or teacher... Steve Kuhn has played alongside the greatest jazzmen: Coltrane, Ron Carter, Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, Pete La Roca, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry. .. to recite nobody else but them !

Full discography : Discogs.com >

Although well known to aficionados, he is for me the pianist who touched me the most. Both through his playing and through his great talents in composition and experimentation.

Sometimes disconcerting, sometimes dissonant, it can be off-putting. But you won't be able to ignore the incredible sensitivity he shows when his fingers run over his piano.

Steve Kuhn Trio at the Berlin Jazztage (1969).
Signaler un abus de la propriété intellectuelle >

Impossible to summarize here all of his discography: it spans decades, flits between styles and influences. But I would like to share with you some of his unmissable projects that have been alongside different moments of my life.

First date with Steve

My first encounter with the man was browsing through my favorite record store jazz bins... I came across the cover of a live from 1972 recorded in New York: over the course of his improvisations, Kuhn alternates between a Rhodes ( electric piano) and an acoustic piano.

"Steve Kuhn Live in New York" cover, 1972 - Voir les crédits >

Yes, we are talking here about an avant-garde live: certainly linear, but which finds itself systematically propelled towards flights that are both delirious and structured. What hits me the most in this recording is Kuhn himself who punctuates the performance with poems of his own composition, which he places as a gift on the music. These verses, at first sight without logic, are nevertheless real rhythm jewels.

It was at this moment that I realized that Steve Kuhn was an offscreen musician, an outsider who expresses his sensitivity in ways that I had never encountered in a pianist before.

An addiction

My research then quickly led me to another of his albums, released a year earlier on the same label (Buddah Records). Now essential, this eponymous disc is certainly the most popular among collectors. Fortunately, as you read these lines, the Italian label Eating Stranding offers us a deluxe reissue which will appear in a few weeks.

We find here Kuhn in an atmosphere and an approach similar to his live. His voice comes to accompany a powerful game, which borders on trance at times, embroidered with poetry, lyricism and melancholy. A work which for me best reflects the complex soul of the pianist.

"Steve Kuhn" cover, 1971 - Voir les crédits >

In this album, the percussionist Airto Morreira is not missing: he brings a certain mysticism to the project, a unique dimension. The string quartet that accompanies the musicians is also a major pillar of the recording: it appears here as a tribute to the composer and arranger Garry McFarland, who died the same year and with whom Kuhn recorded a few years earlier.

Son album "The October Suite"

Because indeed, before venturing into the meanders of free-jazz, Steve Kuhn traveled in the vast world of classical music, from which he comes above all. He was even behind the creation of the "Virtuoso Series" on the legendary Impulse Records label in 1967.

"The october Suite" cover, 1967 - Voir les crédits >

However, he will remain the only signatory. This unique attempt by the record label to mix jazz and classical elements resulted in one of the most iconic records ever produced by the label (in my humble opinion). It is with a much more elegant and standard approach that we find our pianist... although we can already see the potential of the young prodigy then aged 28! A certain romanticism, expressed in his own way on a unique modal basis (and sometimes suddenly liberated), which he manages to merge brilliantly with McFarland's compositions.

A record that still resonates today, both in its complexity and its modernity, and which cannot be ignored by any jazz lover.

Watch What Happens !

Now let’s move forward a year in his discography. We are still in 1967: Kuhn was then living in Stockholm and almost immediately recording a new project called "Watch What Happens!", this time with a trio formation.

"Watch what happens !"  cover (japanese reedition 2016) - Voir les crédits >

This training allows him to express the full force of his instrument. He imposes himself here with a solo playing that places him in the category of the most sensitive musicians of his generation, not far from his colleague Bill Evans.

Although more classical as a whole, the album is a inventiveness jewel that cannot leave indifferent the listener who meets the pianist for the first time. It is the revealing factor of the precision that Kuhn knows how to demonstrate at all times. He heralds what the artist will become: a renowned soloist who, despite playing the least conventional, remains nonetheless accessible to the widest audience.

Further, higher, bigger

Much of Steve Kuhn's discography was produced on the ECM Records label. We will note in particular his album “Trance” published by the famous German house.

Manfred Eicher, his producer at the time, helped him mature his sound universe and then pushed him towards a wider audience. This maturity will even lead him to record with different voices such as that of Karin Krog (with whom he will share his poems and compositions). Together they go beyond the boundaries of the genre and give us a taste of the well-kept underground of European jazz from the 70s.

"Trance" cover, 1975 - Voir les crédits >

Steve Kuhn will never stop over the years to develop the sound that we associate with his name. Listening to him through his diverse and varied formations, you will not be able to miss the undeniable force that this musician exerts on his colleagues: probably a trait common to the biggest names in Jazz.

Steve Kuhn's story continues today: he regularly performs in public, most often in a trio (group where he excels and where he is best able to express his art). If you ever see his name headlining, it is imperative and non-negotiable to get a ticket.

Let yourself be carried away by Stephen's music, which one day resonated in me as one of the most beautiful revelations that music has been able to offer me to date.

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