Jazz CD Reviews

Steve Kuhn Trio – “Life’s Magic” – Sunnyside Communications

A reissue from a great 1987 live session at the Village Vanguard, NYC.

Published on October 8, 2012

Steve Kuhn Trio -  “Life’s Magic” – Sunnyside Communications, SSC 1323 (1987/2012), 66:00 ****:

(Steve Kuhn, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Al Foster, drums)

As the story goes, Steve Kuhn was asked by his manager in the mid-1980s where he would most like to perform and with whom.  Mr. Kuhn identified the Village Vanguard as the venue, accompanied by Al Foster and Ron Carter.  He was indeed booked for a much admired week-long stint there in late March of 1986 with his dream rhythm section.  The shows yielded two record albums – Life’s Magic for the now defunct Blackhawk Records and The Vanguard Date for Owl Records.  Life’s Magic was originally released on LP in 1987 (and very briefly available on CD.)

Sunnyside Communications has “done it right” by reissuing this remastered CD adding two tracks totaling over eighteen minutes of additional music.  It also has a different cover.  The sonics are very fine, which is not surprising since the performances were initially engineered by David Baker and Jim Anderson.

Steve Kuhn is certainly a top flight pianist with a very appealing method of improvisation, often using a  spright and light touch in a manner most pleasing, advanced and sensitive.   He cites ECM’s Manfred Eicher in helping him develop his style by focusing on the art of omitting what is not essential.  When you add this to the influences of Waller, Tatum, Powell, Garner and Wynton Kelly – you come up with something most resembling Bill Evans.  Kuhn himself noted the existing similarity upon first hearing Evans.  The recording itself brings to mind the classic Bill Evans live trio recordings such as “Waltz For Debby”.

In my mind, a true highlight here is drummer Al Foster.  He was just off a thirteen year run with Miles Davis’s electric fusion funk band.  Quite an adjustment (although he was involved in many outside studio sessions). His work throughout is creatively supportive and he is a constant driver behind much of the program. Not to slight Mr. Carter, since these are surely some of his best live moments.  He seemingly doesn’t take a second off – he’s always there workin’.

The program consists of five covers and three originals.  Kuhn shows his creativity and the group puts its stamp on the standards.  (Kuhn mentions that they all grew up with a similar frame of reference resulting in the ability to pick up on each other’s certain hints within a tune’s improvisation).  “Jitterbug Waltz” is a great example – the telepathy shown throughout is a lesson in trio-ism.  Foster’s percussive shadings are masterful and Carter’s stamina in so-correctly establishing the pulse is near perfection.

The two outstanding originals are “Ulla/Trance” and “Mr. Calypso Kuhn”.  At just over twelve minutes, the former is a fine composition revealing profound telepathy.  Foster coaxes some magnificent sound effects out of his kit.  The communication between the three is so heroic that one easily shifts focus among the instruments in concluding that they’re all basically perfectly played.  “Mr. Calypso Kuhn” kicks off with Foster’s sole solo.  It then goes with a drum/bass groove until Kuhn enters around 2:40 lightly and sparingly pecking at the keys.  Only approaching the conclusion does it become the full on calypso identified by the title.

It’s interesting to a review a 26 year-old performance by three masters who are still with us.  This disc provides an insight as to where they were in 1986.  I would say it was a very, very good place to be.

TrackList:  Little Old Lady; Two By Two; Jitterbug Waltz; Ulla/Trance; Yesterday’s Gardenias; Mr. Calypso Kuhn; Never Let Me Go; Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise

—Birney K. Brown




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