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Live At Birdland (2007)

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Al Foster

Steve Kuhn has been recording professionally for close to five decades, most of which time he's operated stealthily, rarely achieving the level of recognition he so richly deserves for contributing his immaculate pianistry to a range of jazz greats who have included John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Ornette Coleman, Art Farmer and others, or for leading his own diverse bands. In the mid-'80s Kuhn worked briefly in a trio setting with bassist extraordinaire Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster, cutting a pair of releases, The Vanguard Date and Life's Magic. Two decades later, that trio reconvened at New York's Birdland, and this exquisite aural document of their performance serves as a reminder that, at close to 70, Kuhn is one of jazz piano's unheralded giants. He is as sharp, imaginative and dexterous as he was during his younger years, and with Carter and Foster he is at home -- the musicians reportedly didn't rehearse for these shows, yet they sound as if they'd been at one another's sides for the past 20 years. At Birdland, the trio revisited four compositions that appeared on the earlier albums: Kuhn's own "Clotilde" and "Two by Two," Carter's "Little Waltz" and the Fats Waller standard "Jitterbug Waltz," the latter deconstructed into an 11-minute tour de force that, like much of the music in the set, allows the three musicians to explore a number of tempos, moods and tones. Kuhn, Carter and Foster alternately strut individually and lock intuitively into an airtight groove that takes surprising and pleasing twists before returning to the initial theme. Whether on the opening track, Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell," the fusing of Debussy's "La Plus Que Lente" and Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower," or the closer, Charlie Parker's "Confirmation," Kuhn establishes a template with light and sensitively executed solo figures before opening things up for all to take off to places unknown. There's a fine balance of simplicity and complexity at work here, but perhaps because he no longer needs to prove anything at this stage in his career, Kuhn seems to have lightened up -- the experimentalism of his ECM period has given way to an approach that is, while still at times blindingly intense, simultaneously light and playful. It's not a bad place for a master to be. ~ Jeff Tamarkin