Steve Kuhn Trio with Joe Lovano – Mostly Coltrane – ECM ECM2099, 77:28 ****:
(Steve Kuhn – piano; Joe Lovano – tenor saxophone & tárogató; David Finck – double-bass; Joey Baron – drums)
Putting together a tribute to John Coltrane might seem a daunting task: how is it possible to measure up to Coltrane’s legacy and performances? And yet many have tried. Pianist Steve Kuhn, his special guest Joe Lovano, and trio members David Finck (double-bass) and drummer Joey Baron succeed where others could and/or have fallen short. Mostly Coltrane is one of the finest Coltrane tributes recently attempted: a homage to Coltrane’s compositional skills and a summation of the saxophonist’s artistry from the late 1950s to his untimely death in 1967.
Jazz history buffs should already know Kuhn was briefly a member of Coltrane’s quartet during a three-month stint at New York City’s Jazz Gallery early in 1960, after Coltrane released Giant Steps. Although Kuhn never recorded with Coltrane and was a participant in Coltrane’s group for only eight weeks, Kuhn admits that listening to and studying Coltrane’s music is "something that will stay with me and has stayed with me as long as I live." Kuhn’s respect and affection for Coltrane, and the music he created, permeates Mostly Coltrane and provides a captivating and convincing impression.
Kuhn decided not to specialize on one or two aspects of Coltrane’s many-sided personality. Instead, Kuhn and his compatriots show Coltrane’s full progression, presenting songs that extend from mainstream standards Coltrane performed on stage at the onset of his solo career and onto the profound experimentation that characterized Coltrane’s later years. In addition, Kuhn offers two originals that fit suitably with the program’s perspective.
The project starter "Welcome," from Coltrane’s 1965 album Kulu Sé Mama, begins with an intimate keyboard introduction that reveals a delicate touch distinct from Coltrane’s longest-standing pianist, McCoy Tyner. Lovano then steps in with some warm tenor saxophone chords, followed by Finck and Baron’s vivid rhythmic bed. The five-minute piece is a slow percolator and is a tasteful opening statement. The quartet echoes that deliberate approach on the third cut, a simmering interpretation of "Crescent." Kuhn’s arrangement is not nearly as intense as Coltrane’s 1964 version, instead relying on connotation and suggestion, which is repeated via Lovano’s fluent sax. Baron’s drumming is also subtle, gentler than that delivered by Elvin Jones, who was featured on Coltrane’s "Crescent."
The outing picks up with a boiling rendition of "Song of Praise," also from 1965, where Kuhn fires up an authoritative solo and illustrates his two-handed proficiency as he pursues a blues-derived direction. Lovano then ventures into some Coltrane-esque moments, but only as a gambit, since he soon heads into an impressionistic region that’s all his own, brimming over with the passion and spirit that so often metabolized in Coltrane’s conceptions. Meanwhile, Finck and Baron carve out an underlying bass and drums commotion that gives the tune a relentlessly motile bearing.
Kuhn’s choice of standard covers also has connections to Coltrane. "I Want to Talk About You" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" were both parts of the Jazz Gallery sets Kuhn partook of back in 1960 and the two reflect that traditionalist era. Kuhn uses a trio format for Billy Eckstine’s beautiful ballad "I Want to Talk About You," wherein he denotes his confidence and artistic perception during an elongated solo. One listen is all one needs to figure out why Kuhn is one of the foremost pianists of his generation. The four musicians arrange a fiery bop configuration on a combustible take of "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes." Baron and Finck prod Lovano and Kuhn into some heated solos: Kuhn unfurls a concentrated rhythmic and declarative style, and later in the lengthy piece Lovano tears through a revolving solo that evokes but avoids copying Coltrane.
Some of the Coltrane material may not be familiar to all fans, which supplies a sense of discovery and surprise. Although "Living Space" was put on tape in 1965, it was not issued until a posthumous 1998 collection of the same name (ignoring the maligned strings-laden treatment Alice Coltrane mixed and released in 1972). The number ideally exhibits Coltrane’s spiritual side, with Lovano crafting a strikingly pure solo that is laid over Kuhn’s lustrous chords. It goes without saying that Kuhn, Lovano, Finck, and Baron also investigate metaphysical modes during "Spiritual." Lovano renders an incisive frame of mind on the Hungarian tárogató, a wooden single-reed instrument with a melancholy timbre that acts as a fascinating contrast to the soprano sax Coltrane used. [Also sometimes used by Charles Lloyd…Ed.]
Kuhn moves to center stage on his brand-new "With Gratitude," a solo piano meditation that is marked by his reflective playing. Kuhn concludes Mostly Coltrane with another solo reading, a remake of his 1975 composition, "Trance," a marvelous missive that eloquently establishes and displays Kuhn’s enthusiasm and empathy for Coltrane.
There are many other engaging segments ("Configuration" and "Central Park West" for example) that are recommended, whether someone might be well-acquainted with Kuhn’s previous work, may appreciate Lovano’s creative abilities, or is a Coltrane devotee. Furthermore, producer Manfred Eicher carries out his usual expert role in emphasizing the broadest sweep of audio articulation, capturing crystal-clear instrumentation throughout.
2. Song of Praise
4. I Want to Talk About You
5. The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
6. Living Space
7. Central Park West
8. Like Sonny
9. With Gratitude
11. Jimmy’s Mode
— Doug Simpson