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Steve Kuhn w/Strings – Promises Kept

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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? Yea, 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 & 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.

(First posted on Mark Is Cranky)

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About Mark Saleski

  • godoggo

    So what are the other jazz with strings you’ve liked? Here’s what you’ve liked? Here’ mine:

    I heard some very hip Max Roach double quartet stuff on the radio once. Max made sure the quartet swung.

    I have a couple of avant garde compilations with some great Alice Coltrane stuff where she puts Varese-like noise strings over a late Coltrane-style drone. Also she overdubbed strings over Tane’s “Leo” and also added some organ reminiscent of, um, that guy from the Tony Williams Lifetime.

    I’ve got a pretty good MJQ with strings album, orchestrations by ur-Third Stream composer Gunther Schuller (truly a great classical composer who also had(s?) a scholarly knowledge of jazz).

    I’ve liked some of the early 70s CTI stuff, when there was a bit of of psychedelic influence, arranged either by Don Sebesky (whose name I remember mainly ’cause I had to study his book, but he’s good, really), or, um, that fusion keyboard guy, played with the Mothers for a while, no, not Don Preston, the black guy, had a lengthy collaboration with, um, I think maybe Billy Cobham, somebody like that, sold a bunch of records, easy to find in used vinyl bins.

    Anyways, after th Bird album, the “With Strings” album I’ve heard cited a lot is Clifford Brown, which I’ve only heard maybe a couple of tracks from, but very nice.

    Of course, one of the things that made the Bird album was the corniness of the strings, in contrast to his hipness and profundity. I remember an interview with Carla Bley where she opined thusly, and said she didn’t like Wynton’s record with strings (which, typically, I haven’t heard), because it was too tasteful.

    Well, I’m really not done, and yet I really am. Or something. Bye.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    yep, Alice Coltrane is in there. i’ve got a live record of hers that really good.

    Ornette Coleman did some cool stuff too. i can’t remember what it is…i’ll have to dig out the Beauty Is A Rare Thing box (i’m not talking about his own violin playing…which is ‘interesting’)

  • JR

    …organ reminiscent of, um, that guy from the Tony Williams Lifetime.

    Larry Young, a.k.a. Khalid Yasin

    …that fusion keyboard guy, played with the Mothers for a while, no, not Don Preston, the black guy, had a lengthy collaboration with, um, I think maybe Billy Cobham, somebody like that, sold a bunch of records, easy to find in used vinyl bins.

    George Duke?