Playing From Your Toes
by MAARTEN DE HAAN, September 2001
Last December, pianist Steve Kuhn was in Amsterdam to give some master classes and perform at the new jazz club, De Pompoen. Next month, he will release his third CD with bassist David Finck and drummer Billy Drummond - a trio Kuhn has been performing with for years at the Knickerbocker restaurant in New York. The new release is called “The Best Things.”
When asked about John Coltrane, Kuhn said, “What I remember best about John Coltrane is that he always smelled of butter rum lifesavers - the butter sweets that he loved.” If you remember Kuhn from his experimental records in the 1970s on ECM you may find it surprising that he was part of the first quartet that Coltrane put together, shortly after the saxophonist had recorded “Giant Steps.”
Kuhn recalled, “In 1959 I came to New York and was the pianist with Kenny Dorham’s band. When I heard that Coltrane was leaving Miles, I decided to take a chance and called him up. We met each other twice in a rehearsal studio and at his place to get to know each other and play. A few days later there was a phone call that took a load off my chest. Coltrane said, “Would $135 a week be okay?”
Unfortunately, Kuhn did not feel at home in the quartet. The reason was not that Coltrane actually preferred McCoy Tyner, nor because the choice for him was criticized by members of the black community. “Our playing just did not mix well,” recalled Kuhn. “Whenever Coltrane played ‘out’, I went ‘out’ and joined him. When we talked about this he said to me, ‘Look, I cannot tell you how to play.’ It was only when I heard Coltrane and Tyner together that I realized how it should be done.”
At the time, Kuhn hung out a lot with bassists Scott LaFaro and Paul Chambers. “Scott was playing with Stan Getz’s quartet and they asked me to join. It was right before Getz recorded his immensely popular bossa nova records. At concerts we were treated as pop stars,” said Kuhn. He does not enjoy listening to his own recordings of that period. Kuhn added, “For me, the 1960s was one big search for my own sound.”
Kuhn’s technique was not the issue. At age 12, he had taken lessons with Margaret Chaloff, mother of the deceased saxophonist Serge Chaloff. He recalls, “She taught me in the classical Russian school, to which also belonged Vladimir Horowitz and Andrej Gavrilov. According to this school, one’s musicality must come from your whole body, from the toes. Your fingertips are the mouthpiece of your expression.” Young Kuhn was such a promise that, age 15, Chet Baker asked him to tour with him tin Paris. However, his parents did not allow this.
It was only later in his career that Kuhn began to compose. “In 1969, I wrote a piece for a record with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano,” recounted Kuhn. “I suddenly realized that I had just recorded my complete oeuvre. In the years after that, I wrote 15 compositions, including “The Zoo” and “The Saga Of Harrisson Crabfeathers” aka “Poem for #15.”
It was ECM’s producer Manfred Eicher who helped Kuhn develop a style of his own, especially by encouraging him to find the art of omitting what is not essential. “If he likes you, Manfred is a wonderful producer,” said Kuhn. “If not, you might as well make a record on the moon. Personally, I admire jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Ahmad Jamal and Count Basie, who showed that less is more. But before meeting Manfred Eicher, I hardly practiced it myself.”
The artistic successes Kuhn had as a soloist, with his quartet and with singer Sheila Jordan gave him a modest, but loyal following. After a period of commercial gigging in the so-called society bands in the 1980s, Kuhn finally made up his mind and chose a solo career. For him, the trio as his ideal combination.
In club De Pompoen in Amsterdam, the pianist performed with bassist Frans van der Hoeven and drummer Jo Krause. Those who witnessed this seasoned jazz musician in action will agree with me that the music came from the toes.