June 2008

Steve Kuhn — Piano Workshop
at The Art of Jazz Celebration
June 7, 2008Dancemakers StudioToronto
Report by Christopher Butcher with photo by Mike Colyer
“In my opinion he is one of the most under-rated pianists in jazz”. This is how Sheila Jordan introduced her friend and frequent musical accompanist Steve Kuhn for his Piano Workshop at the Art of Jazz.

It seems that Kuhn has all the prerequisites for jazz stardom: compositions of his included in The Real Book, a gig with John Coltrane’s quartet (albeit a short and unrecorded one) and a moderately large discography both as a leader and top call sideman. Despite all this, Jazz stardom seems to have evaded him.

Born in Brooklyn in 1938, Kuhn relocated to Boston with his family at the age of twelve. He started taking piano lessons from a young age and seemed to be gifted with a photographic memory as a child. In his teens he started studying with the noted pedagogue Margaret Chaloff (mother of jazz baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff who was one of Kuhn’s first employers). Chaloff was held in such high esteem as a teacher that virtuoso jazz piano players who came through Boston would often take a lesson from her — people like: Red Garland, Oscar Peterson and Tommy Flanagan.
Steve Kuhn
For Kuhn’s lessons Chaloff dedicated most of her time teaching a Russian school of piano technique. Kuhn said that training is responsible for his command of touch on the instrument, from the softest pianissimo to the most biting sforzando, claiming there are few jazz pianists who have that much control of the piano’s tonal qualities. The Russian technique focused on remaining completely stress free from your feet up through your body and out your arms into the piano keys. As if one were breathing into the piano with no impediments to block the airflow.

Kuhn’s professional experience began with a two year stint in Kenny Dorham’s group. Dorham eventually recommended Kuhn to John Coltrane who was looking to form his own band after leaving Miles Davis. After jamming with Coltrane a few times, Kuhn received a call asking “if $135 a week would be okay” to join Coltrane’s band. Kuhn commented in the clinic that he would have paid to play with Coltrane if he could have afforded to at the time. After a two month stint at the Jazz Gallery, Steve Kuhn left the band to make way for McCoy Tyner and the rest is history. Tyner was the pianist Coltrane had wanted initially but couldn’t get him as Tyner had a contract with the Art Farmer / Benny Golson / Curtis Fuller Jazztet. Steve Kuhn believed that Tyner had a better approach for accompanying Coltrane as he wasn’t sure what to play behind the Jazz giant who was going in a totally new direction.

A musical association with Steve Swallow was brought up a lot during the workshop. Steve Swallow apparently sat Mr. Kuhn down and told him he had to start taking composition seriously, as he was admittedly neglecting his writing and couldn’t get motivated without a deadline. The two players obviously built a relationship playing on each other’s recordings and Steve Kuhn insisted that Steve Swallow was his brother from another mother, and also that Sheila Jordan was his sister from another mother. During the clinic, Jordan kept the flow going with her very inquisitive nature, not hesitating to ask her collaborator many questions. The two players talked of a duo recording they are planning to do. It will surely be a great addition to Kuhn’s large and impressive discography.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Christopher Butcher
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Mike Colyer
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The Live Music Report

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