Kuhn’s continuum

US pianist Steve Kuhn will display his wide range of musical sensibilities in the Opera Jazz series.

Kuhn’s continuum  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kuhn’s continuum
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Steve Kuhn has proven to be one of the jazz world’s more versatile players over the last half century. That capacity should come in handy when the 74-year-old American pianist comes here to star in the Opera Jazz series slot, which takes place in Tel Aviv next Friday. The works of Sasha Argov seem to be playing an increasing role in the series, and Kuhn will be called upon to offer his singular jazzy readings of some of the iconic Israeli songsmith’s material, with several of Kuhn’s own scores and some jazz standards in the mix.
Kuhn first set hands to keyboard at age five, when he began learning classical piano under the tutelage of famed Bostonian teacher Margaret Chaloff, the mother of jazz baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. While his teacher imparted the so-called “Russian style” of piano playing, even as a child Kuhn began developing an interest in the less regimented side of music and started improvising on classical themes. By the time he was in his teens, he had become a regular performer at jazz clubs in and around the Boston area, appearing with the likes of saxophone great Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Chet Baker and Serge Chaloff.
Kuhn was born at a good stage of the jazz continuum. As a child he was able to enjoy the merry sounds and energies of swing music as presented by the likes of clarinetist Benny Goodman, and the more frenetic and daring vibes of bebop jazz came into being around that time. Later, as Kuhn began to stake his place in the jazz world, he rubbed elbows with modern jazz trailblazers such as saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry, who attended the Lenox School of Music in Stamford, Connecticut, at the same time as he did.
“I was very fortunate to be around at that time and to have a chance to play with people like [saxophonist] John Coltrane and also listen to other musicians who were influential, like Miles Davis, and I was even able to hear [saxophonist and bebop co- founder] Charlie Parker a few times when he came to Boston with [bebop founding father] Dizzy Gillespie,” Kuhn recalls.
One giant, in particular, who swung through the jazz clubs of Boston, left a lasting impression on Kuhn. “I also heard Art Tatum, who was my all-time idol on the piano and, for me, was God. So I would say it was a very fertile and interesting time to be growing up and to have exposure to these wonderful musicians.”
Although he has done his utmost to push the envelope over the years, Kuhn says he never loses sight of his roots and the sounds he enjoyed when he was a kid.
“I listened to all the early stuff, back to where it all began in jazz – boogie woogie pianists like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. All of that was a big influence when I was young. Then there were all those swing-era players, like Benny Goodman and Count Basie and Duke Ellington. And there was all the classical music I studied and played,” he says.
Kuhn believes that regardless of when you were born, all jazz musicians should get a handle on the genre’s roots before they go off to look for their own voice.
“I find, these days, that a lot of the younger musicians think that jazz music started with Coltrane or Ornette, and a lot of people don’t even know who Charlie Parker or even Louis Armstrong was, or they may know something of Armstrong’s commercial successes but nothing else. Louis Armstrong was an incredibly talented and influential trumpet player, and people like Miles Davis picked up on what he did. It is important for youngsters to know the history of the music,“ he says.
Kuhn has taken those early influences and the sounds he has picked up along his own way and sculpted and melded them in his own fashion, collaborating with a wide range of artists and in all sorts of formats over the last 50-plus years. After spending much of the 1960s performing and recording with many fellow professionals, such as Stan Getz, Ron Carter David Finck and Billy Drummond, Kuhn feel in love with a Swedish singer and was based in Europe from 1967 to 1971, performing all over the continent. After he returned to New York, he struck up productive synergies with the likes of bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete LaRoca, and renewed his association with Carter, saxophonist Oliver Nelson and bassist David Finck. Swallow and Finck remain cohorts, with Finck playing on Kuhn’s 2009 release of Mostly Coltrane , while Swallow fills the bass player’s berth on his latest album, Wisteria .
Kuhn’s facility for accommodating a wide range of musical sensibilities and ensembles will no doubt be in evidence next Friday as he joins forces with a classical string quartet, plus oboist/English horn player Yael Zamir, who play under the baton of Carlos Franzetti. The rest of the concert will focus on Kuhn’s own charts, when he will be joined by bassist David Wong and drummer Billy Drummond.
“I always feel challenged, and every time I sit at the piano, it’s always somewhat daunting,” says Kuhn. “I don’t ever feel that I want to stop expanding or learning because at that point, you may as well stop playing. I feel good about what I’m doing these days, but I’m not complacent at all.”
Steve Kuhn will perform on March 22 at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv at 9:30 p.m. For more information: (03) 692-7777; www.israel-opera.co.il; www.stevekuhnmusic.com.