It is no secret that record companies — large record companies obligated to turning a profit for their stockholders — like to sign young, exciting, good-looking artists. Blue Note, America’s blue chip jazz label, is no stranger to this — Hello, Norah Jones. Too often, it seems, the only jazz musicians being supported by the major labels were legends with immortal names and “young lions” not yet ready for prime time.
But in 2007, Blue Note is doing more than releasing the new Norah Jones album. It is also releasing substantial new music by distinctly mature jazz artists — musicians who have been neglected and whose art is at a high pitch. Pianist Steve Kuhn, at the age of 69, boasts an impressive career of adventurous improvisation. His Blue Note debut is a live date with a sterling rhythm team — Ron Carter on bass and Al Foster on drums — that has been playing together for decades. The result is a sparkling and inventive record of piano trio jazz for the ages.
Much of the program here is a reprise of the trio’s work from the stage of the Village Vanguard in 1984, music that was released 20 years ago on smaller labels. The group reportedly did not rehearse, and the music sounds that fresh. As a pianist, Kuhn is nimble and fleet, while Carter plays the role of anchor. Foster’s ears are legendary, and he drives the music forward here with immediate responsiveness to every quaver of his band mates’ melodies. The communication — exciting, intuitive, and virtuosic — is the very thing that jazz is all about.
About half of the set consists of standards, ranging from Fats Waller to Charlie Parker to Kenny Dorham. “If I Were a Bell” opens with the famous Miles Davis “doorbell” motif, played at a drag, then eases into an accelerating swing that never flags. Kuhn very effectively uses the repetition of key licks and patterns, sculpting long and exciting arcs of invented melody that have their engines revved by Kuhn’s stuttering churn. For straight swing, the barnburner may be “Lotus Blossom”, where the melody is stated with quick syncopation, and then Kuhn is off to the races but also takes his time building chorus after chorus of tension using every extreme of the keyboard. Eventually, the solo splits into two independent lines, which converge — spontaneously — on the Latin vamp riff of “A Night in Tunisia”. The rhythm section gallops and glides, setting up Kuhn’s drama for easy and generous effect.
The originals are fine — a Kuhn blues, Ron Carter’s oft-played “Little Waltz”, and Kuhn’s “Clotide”, one of the track’s from the trio’s 1984 set. The latter tune is easy pleasure, a skipping and amiable melody in three that Foster and Carter are able to complicate with the kind of subtle shifts and stutters that make a great jazz trio something burnished and complex. Casual listeners will hear something like Vince Guaraldi in this track, but there is as much Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett here. The sum of the trio’s parts works on even familiar sounds.
The trio’s transformation of the reliable “Stella by Starlight” is one of the other remarkable performances on Live at Birdland. Kuhn only hints at the written melody, eliding the line until it simply hints at the harmony and cues you in with a single distinctive lick. As a result, the “solo” begins almost at the start, lending the whole piece an air of chamber jazz. The feeling rushes into the song, however, on Ron Carter’s logical and original bass solo. Mixing memorable melodies with precisely placed double stop figure, Carter plays one of finest solos on record. When Kuhn returns, it is for second licks, with the bass double-stops and melody continuing under him beautifully. The usual melody never plays out in total, and the performance ends with Kuhn playing just six notes of it in an emphatic unison line.
Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” is a similar delight. The opening solo piano statement is elegant and classical in tone — with maybe a hint of “Swanee River” or “Three Blind Mice”. Then the group play a single bar recognizable from Bird’s melody. As the tempo kicks in underneath, Kuhn remains floating on top, this time playing several phrases of “Three Blind Mice” (a reference to the trio playing on no rehearsal?) before replaying the Parker lick and then taking off on a full-fledged improvisation. It starts off easy and even, then starts to roar with bop logic, then starts to fling itself to the outside, just about splitting the atom — tearing up through the ivories in two directions at once. That the trio eventually does play all of Parker’s melody comes as a perfect end to the disc — a sense of completion and celebration for a group that seems to be able to do anything.
Live at Birdland is the kind of record that used to get made all the time — a great trio doing its thing with nonchalant brilliance. No guest stars, no Tribute to a Dead Jazz Great gimmick, no semi-successful covers of indie-rock songs. Jazz fans — take a bath in it. Soak your weary bones. Take a load off. Feels good, doesn’t it?