the fleetness & lucidity of Kuhn's piano grace this album, feat. his regular working rhythm section of bassist David Finck & drummer Billy Drummond - together they play songs by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Steve Swallow & others
"One, two, da ding, ding, ding," says Steve Kuhn, kicking off the opening bars of his latest record. In an instant, he's vaulting into an emphatic uptempo groove propelled by bassist David Finck and drummer Billy Drummond. As the phrases hurtle along, the pianist puts pressure on each of his chiming notes, challenging them to specify their value and explain their logic. For the next hour or so, they do exactly that. The tune - the title track from Kuhn's latest trio date for the Reservoir label, Countdown - is a kissing cousin of "Giant Steps," penned by Coltrane in the late 1950s. It's an auspicious beginning to a program of music that optimizes Coltrane's and sundry other jazz lingoes. Like its predecessor, 1997's Dedication, the album charmingly suggests those lingoes can be distilled into one tongue, and, for Kuhn, that sounds like a purification process. These days, there are those who avoid standards, believing them to be overexposed and therefore somewhat impotent. But on tunes such as "Four" and "When Lights Are Low," the pianist makes the case that mainstream fare is quite capable of handling all sorts of ideas. Kuhn isn't exactly an orthodox guy. Pliancy is an obvious component of his style, a forte in fact. His is inclusive and responsive music. "Bop is my strongest connection to the music, sure," Kuhn offers, "but I think my stuff is more than straight bop. Everything else I've come in contact with over the years - like classical music, the European literature - has found a place in there. And I immersed myself in the so-called avant-garde for a while. What you hear now is sort of where I've ended up. It's evolution." It's refinement, too. The music on Countdown is crisp, lithe. With a left hand carefully choosing notes on "Four," the 61-year-old pianist invests in a kind of judiciousness that keeps dimension in mind. Because there's not a speck of clutter in his playing, a sharpness emerges that bolsters the drive of the rhythm section. These days, accuracy is advantageous. "It's interesting," Kuhn says. "I recently heard a couple of records that I did 30 years ago - they came out on CD, and some Japanese friends sent them to me. It was remarkable to hear how the playing had changed. I was really going nuts in those days, slamming down my elbows and going inside the piano. At the time, it seemed like something I had to do, but, when I heard it again, I really didn't like it that much. These days I edit a lot out, play less notes. It's a function of getting older, maturing. Finding your voice, I guess." Kuhn has participated in several ensembles with horns through the years. His early days with Coltrane, Kenny Dorham, and Stan Getz helped him develop a mastery at comping as well as soloing. He believes the symmetry of the magic triangle, however, to be his most articulate context. "I love quartet and quintet," he says, "and I play with Pete La Roca's sextet sometimes, too. But trio is it. I like the democracy, and, although the piano is on top quite a bit, the responsibility belongs to us all. It's always felt the most comfortable for me."
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