For those who may be unaware of ECM stalwart Steve Kuhn’s connection to John Coltrane, they actually played together for a few weeks in 1960. The first three months of 1960 saw Kuhn as Coltrane’s pianist at the Jazz Gallery in New York City.
They never played together again afterwards, but Kuhn was deeply influenced by the experience. Kuhn’s Mostly Coltrane is one of the finest of the many John Coltrane tributes to have emerged over the years. Kuhn’s longtime trio, which includes bassist David Finck, and drummer Joey Baron is supplemented by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano.
Lovano acquits himself admirably in the Coltrane role, which is kind of a no win proposition really. You never mistake his phrasing for actually being Coltrane. But the arrangements and execution are done so respectfully as to make it a moot point.
One of the many impressive aspects of this set is the songs Kuhn chose to use. "Central Park West," "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes," and "I Want To Talk About You" were all part of the Jazz Gallery sets he played back in '60. They reflect the hard bop era that Coltrane was just transitioning out of.
Of the remaining ten tracks, eight are Coltrane originals recorded between 1964, and his final year, 1967. I like the fact that Kuhn began when he played with the man, and then followed JC’s journey through to the end.
“Welcome” from the 1965 album Kulu Se Mama opens things up perfectly, setting just the right tone for what is to follow. “Living Space,” also originally recorded in ‘65, but unreleased until the posthumous ‘98 disc of the same title, is another highlight.
Kuhn’s interplay with the band is so spot on, yet so different from what Coltrane’s pianists usually did. It begs the obvious question, what if Kuhn had stayed on?
The two remaining cuts are by Steve Kuhn. “With Gratitude,” is a beautiful piano meditation featuring some of his most reflective playing. It was a stroke of genius to close Mostly Coltrane with “Trance” though.
This amazing piece lays bare just how profoundly Kuhn has been influenced by his one-time band leader, and where those influences have taken him. “Trance” is a piano improvisation that works in captivating ways, and surprises like no other.
For this listener, Steve Kuhn’s Mostly Coltrane is about as good as it gets in paying tribute to a legend.