Steve Kuhn Trio – Wisteria (2012)

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Just as Steve Kuhn recently looked back to his very brief but impressionable stint in an early edition of the John Coltrane Quartet, the prolific jazz pianist is reminiscing again. This time, it‘s from a few years later during his time with Art Farmer’s ensemble of the early 60s.

Again using touch points from his personal past as the inspiration for a fresh take on his highly lyrical band of piano jazz, Kuhn does make one explicit nod to Farmer — the title track — but more of the nostalgia concerns reuniting with the bass player at his side during the Farmer days and into the time of Kuhn’s own trio formed not long afterwards, going all the way through their one-on-one meeting Two By Two from five years ago. Namely, Steve Swallow. Joey Baron, Kuhn’s ace drummer on Mostly Coltrane as well as 1995’s Remembering Tomorrow returns as well to round out this super trio.

Four of the six Kuhn originals found here originated on Kuhn + strings affair Promises Kept (2004) but are recorded by him in a trio format for the first time, and casting them in this new light makes them new again. As often as Kuhn crosses back and forth between classical and jazz, he’s supremely able to adapt songs from one of these styles to the other. Supplementing these recycled songs are two new ones by Kuhn, two by Swallow, and three covers.

On a record where there are only three performers in a well-worn format, the personnel involved are even more crucial to the success of the record, but Kuhn’s got that covered. Swallow matches Kuhn’s lyricism on his electric bass, producing a clear toned expressions in the higher register, demonstrated by his solos within “Morning Dew,” “Romance,” “Permanent Wave” and Wisteria,” or the spidery, low walking found on his own composition, “Good Lookin’ Rookie.” For his showcase song “Pastorale,” Swallow virtually assumes the role of a vocalist, because he is able to make his bass sing with the feel and inflections of a human.

Baron is a great talent not wasted on this record, either. His mighty sense of swing provides the just-right pop to “Chalet,” but it’s his impeccable shadings on “Adagio” (see YouTube above) that separates him from the merely very good drummers, and he brings a controlled fury to “A Likely Story.”

As good as the support is, this remains Kuhn’s date all the way. He takes the title of the song “Romance” to heart, playing with a deft romantic feel that doesn’t overflow with syrup. On the aforementioned “Adagio,” he strikes a perfect balance between comping and improvising, using a series of single line notes, arpeggios and full chords to exploit opportunities in space, time and tempo presented by this elegant motif. Even on a lively bebop tune “A Likely Story,” Kuhn never gives less than a full commitment to the melody.

It’s precisely that commitment, along with the devotion to understated prowess of a prime trio lineup that lifts Wisteria well above your run-of-the-mill piano trio albums.

Wisteria releases on May 1, 2012 by ECM Records.

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