“In January, February and March of
1960, I was privileged to work with John Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery in New
York City. I will always cherish those eight weeks. This music reflects my deep
respect for him,” writes Steve Kuhn. From the very first notes he plays on the
opener, “Welcome,” you can feel the eulogistic spirit in his touch. ‘Welcome’
seems more like ‘goodbye.’ In December of 2008, Kuhn and his trio with David
Finck and Joey Baron teemed up with Joe Lovano at Avatar Studios in NYC to
record a CD of ten tunes that Coltrane either wrote or made legendary and two
Kuhn originals. It is nice to have a Coltrane tribute record where the tenor
player is not a Coltrane disciple. Lovano has definitely incorporated an
influence of Coltrane into his sound, but it is only one of many elements to
what is a very distinct sound of his own. On this record, you will not find
anyone trying to re-create anything.
“Welcome,” originally appeared on Coltrane’s record Transition from 1965 and it has a strikingly beautiful melody. It
is treated like a precious flower, with the utmost delicacy by these veteran
musicians. Lovano and Kuhn play with a peaceful and serene affection, and Baron
and Finck simply accentuate the efforts of the soloists, creating textures and
making exclamation points, allowing the rubato tempo to be controlled by Lovano
and Kuhn. When the tune finished, I felt like I had just finished meditating.
a little darker with “Song of Praise.” The tune begins with an unsettling
introduction from Kuhn before Lovano states the deep minor melody. Joey Baron
reaches a climax of drum effects before suddenly dropping into a swing groove
as the solo section begins. Kuhn’s solo is as rich as can be, full of tension
and release, and superimposing different time signatures over the 4/4 structure.
Finck is on his every move, seeming to almost think along with him—great ears.
When Lovano begins his solo, Kuhn lays out. Lovano then gets back into to
melody as Kuhn creates un-structured textures behind him and Baron builds to a
also begins with a beautiful introduction from Kuhn. His touch and harmonic
sensibilities make your eye lids droop in a sort of ecstatic sense of calm.
Lovano plays the song with love and care, and the abandon that love requires to
truly be expressed. Baron is playful and adventurous.
continues with their gentle and meditative exploration of Coltrane’s music with
the ballad “I Want To Talk About You.” It becomes very clear on this tune,
perhaps because Lovano isn’t playing on it, that Kuhn is approaching this
project from a deeper place than trying to give tribute to the sound and style
of Coltrane. You can feel the dedication to the man and his spirit. Kuhn plays
with a gorgeous melodicism and a very open but acute sense of time.
Things really brighten up with an
up-tempo version of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” The band plays it with a
very straight forward and up-lifting sense of harmony, and they swing their
tails off. Toward the end of the tune, Kuhn and Lovano improvise together and
push each other on before going back into the head.
Making a stark contrast to the
previous tune is “Living Space,” the title track of Coltrane’s 1965 release. It
is a searching and free modal piece with an evolving sense of tempo. Lovano and
Kuhn play off each other beautifully and Baron creates weather patterns with
the drums—alternately thunderous, oceanic or clear and breezy.
“Central Park West” is played as a
duo between Lovano and Kuhn. The two play the tune with such ease and freedom.
Lovano’s playing is completely reflexive, yet he is always allowing himself to
truly be confronted by the call to action that each moment brings, so his
reflexes are always extremely active—his virtuosity, spontaneity and
personality are an incredible combination.
“Like Sonny” is given a Latin
tinged treatment and Kuhn really shines on this one with his hand independence,
and the way his hands interact. Finck takes a very tasty solo.
The first of the two Kuhn originals
is “With Gratitude,” which he plays solo. Through it, he tells an incredibly
rich and profound story of love, loss, life and death. It has the quality of
seeming to be composed and improvised at the same time.
“Configuration” is approached with
complete freedom and abandon, and Baron and Lovano jump on the opportunity.
After a minute or so, Kuhn joins the action with equal intensity. At Lovano’s
free-est moments, there is almost a primitive flamboyance, but there is always
a sense of joy in his playing. I will only make a comparison because this is a
tribute album, but Coltrane’s playing is much darker.
The group approaches “Spiritual” in
a free context for the first two minutes, before settling into a classic
Jones/Coltrane/Garrison/Tyner sense of swing. Lovano plays a tarogato on this
tune, which has a sound somewhere in between a soprano sax and a clarinet. Kuhn
takes a very innovative and varied solo with one incredible idea after another.
Baron’s drumming really has that classic Elvin Jones vibe, with its rolling
explosions of rhythm. The album ends with another incredibly personal solo
original from Kuhn entitled “Trance.”
What is most wonderful about this
album is that each player fully asserts their own identity, yet in reverence to
John Coltrane. They are not playing like
him or imitating the music and interplay of his great bands, but they are
playing for him and in tribute to the
spirit of the man and his music. You can feel the love and gratitude emanating
from the speakers.