Steve Kuhn with Strings – Promises Kept (2004)

by Mark Saleski

I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of jazz “with strings” records that ‘work’ for me. This is a somewhat mysterious phenomenon as jazz and improvised music is food to me. As necessary as oxygen. Along those lines, a good string quartet is a thing not only of beauty … it is beauty.

But then you go and mix these things together and, well, they don’t wanna mix. Here I’m thinking of many of the musics labeled “Third Stream.” This was jazz mixed with classical. In its more knotty forms it was a load of fun. But sometimes, that stuff just didn’t want to be blended and the result was dense, turgid and waaaay too serious. There are of course, counterexamples in jazz. Take Charlie Parker with Strings. It’s basically flawless. I mean, it is Charlie Parker.

So, you might be thinking: Steve Kuhn? Yeah, not exactly a household name to the casual jazz fan. This is too bad though, as Kuhn has written some fantastic music over the years and has played and recorded with an impressive list of jazz stars including Kenny Dorham, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Art Farmer, Steve Swallow, Tom Harrell and Joey Baron.

Promises Kept features seven new compositions written with string arrangements in mind, as well as three older Kuhn pieces reworked for that context. What makes this album ‘work’ is Kuhn’s romantic and expressive melodies and chord structures. The melodies, with Kuhn at the piano, really do ‘tell a story.’ So much so that the string arrangements fit effortlessly. This was not accidental. From Bob Blumenthal’s (excellent as always) liner notes:

While the rhythmic power of his music is represented by “Trance” and “Oceans in the Sky”, it is the emotion in Kuhn’s melodies that is the focal point here. “As I’ve gotten older and gone through deaths and losses, as well as open heart surgery, and at the same time come to appreciate the love and the positive influences in my life, I find myself responding more emotionally.”

Kuhn goes on to say that the strings seem to bring out the emotion in the music. I couldn’t agree more. This is a sort of musical travelog through Steve Kuhn’s life. It obviously means a lot to him, but we can all take something from it.

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