Steve Kuhn – Mostly Coltrane (ECM)

kuhn mostly coltrane

There have been a lot of Coltrane influenced releases recently but this new one (2009) must surely be one of the best.  Steve Kuhn and Coltrane have history: in 1960 at the age of 21, Kuhn was playing piano on a Coltrane quartet tour in New York.  It didn’t last – he was replaced after eight weeks by McCoy Tyner who stayed with the quartet through most of the great Impulse recordings of the 1960s.

On this new ECM recording, Kuhn’s trio is augmented by Joe Lovano on tenor (and one track, tarogato – a Hungarian reed instrument also favoured by Charles Lloyd).  The music throughout is stunning.  This set begins with Coltrane’s Welcome and ends with Kuhn’s solo piano meditation simply called Trance.

In between, the trio and Lovano work their way through the Coltrane repertoire including late originals like Crescent and Living Space together with standards like I Want to Talk about You and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.  It all works. Kuhn’s playing is vibrant and tender. He might once have been compared with Bill Evans but here Kuhn plays with exquisite control one minute and almost free abandon the next.  In the remarkable Configuration (originally on Coltrane’s 1967 release Stellar Regions) he does all this and more.  Kuhn isn’t at all like Tyner – all block chords and modal runs.  Rather, his tone is impressionistic, with solos often built up from tiny runs and clustered arpeggios.

As for Lovano, he may play with Ravi Coltrane in the Saxophone summit group but the sound here is really all his own.  It’s fiery but controlled, with a tone that has echoes of ‘trane when it suits the mood best (as in the gorgeous Song of Praise) but melodically inventive too in a way that his recent Folk Art CD on Blue Note didn’t demonstrate.  Nowhere is this more clear than on    The Night has a Thousand Eyes where he spirals out tenor lines of such warmth and lightness that smiling is the only permitted response.

Drummer Joey Baron is all Elvin Jones one minute and then Roy Haynes the next, but even at his most thunderous (Configuration ) there’s always there’s the delicate stickwork that marks out his style.   Live at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival a few years ago, I saw Baron use a wider range of sticks and mallets with greater intensity and depth than any drummer I can think of, and he brings that artistry to this set too. There’s just a couple of solo spots for bassist Finck but both are deep and lyrical and across the full 75 minutes of Mostly Coltrane his interplay with the others is stunning.

This group just really like playing together and producer Manfred Eicher and his New York engineer James Farber capture this with the usual ECM clarity.  Tribute albums don’t always work but this one does.  I love this album and will be playing it for years to come.  As they say, if you’re going to buy one Coltrane-flavoured CD this year – make it Mostly Coltrane.

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