The wise and wistful title track of “Wisteria”, written by Art Farmer, takes us back to the early 60s, when both Steve Kuhn and Steve Swallow sang softly of the blues in the trumpeter-flügelhornist’s band. Swallow was also a member of the trio Kuhn formed shortly thereafter: they’ve shared a lot of history since then. Steve Swallow played on Kuhn’s 1974 classic “Trance” while Kuhn contributed to Swallow’s “Home” and “So There” in 1979 and 2005 respectively. Drummer Joey Baron has been heard with Kuhn on ECM discs including “Remembering Tomorrow” (ECM 1553, 1995) and the dazzling tribute disc “Mostly Coltrane” (ECM 2099, 2008).
This new album takes a fresh look at several pieces last heard on record in Kuhn’s orchestral “Promises Kept” collection – “Promises Kept” itself, “Adagio”, “Morning Dew” and “Pastorale”. Kuhn’s compositions, few in number but robust and adaptable, have often lent themselves to quite different interpretations. If anything, these small group versions emphasize the emotional core of the material. Counterbalancing the yearning balladry, the album also includes driving, exciting hard bop (on “A Likely Story”, for instance, and Swallow’s “Good Lookin’ Rookie), Carla Bley’s gospel-tinged “Permanent Wave”, and the Brazilian “Romance” by Dori Caymmi… It’s a varied programme which the trio seems to sail through effortlessly, musicians secure in their craft, beyond the need to prove anything, creating the agreeable illusion that this demanding music is playing itself.
Swallow and Kuhn after a half-century of collaborations indeed know each other’s playing well; in accord at a very high level, they share the same love of melody, and develop their improvisational ideas together, as is already apparent on the buoyant opening track, Kuhn’s “Chalet” where soloist and accompanist roles rotate. The resourceful Joey Baron, one of Jazz’s finest drummers, a player with access to the whole tradition, is also thoroughly at home in Kuhn’s oeuvre, having worked with the pianist, in diverse settings for more than 20 years. Surprising, then, that the recording of “Wisteria”, in New York’s Avatar Studio in September 2011, marked the first occasion that Kuhn, Swallow and Baron had ever played in trio together.
As writer Bob Blumenthal noted at the time of “Promises Kept”, “Kuhn’s touch, which illuminates the subtlest harmonic nuances and allows both shimmering upper-register glissandos and booming bass chords to emerge with pristine clarity and keenly calibrated force has long been one of his defining traits”. The famous touch – which Kuhn often credits to early lessons with Margaret Chaloff – is in full bloom on “Wisteria”.
Kuhn’s career found him moving in exceptional company while still a teenager: he accompanied Chet Baker, Coleman Hawkins and Vic Dickenson in the clubs of Boston. At the Lennox School of Music he played in a band with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. He was in Kenny Dorham’s group for two years, and then became, briefly and famously, the first pianist of the John Coltrane Quartet (an experience recalled in Kuhn’s “Mostly Coltrane” album). After Coltrane came Stan Getz in a line-up with Scott LaFaro. At the end of the 1960s, Kuhn spent four years living in Europe, mostly in Scandinavia where his performance had a significant impact upon local players. Upon returning to the United States, Kuhn began his affiliation with ECM, resulting in a row of important albums. Three of these were reprised in 2008 in the box set “Life’s Backward Glances”, which included the solo album ”Ecstasy”, and the quartet discs “Motility” and “Playground” (the latter with singer Sheila Jordan): the collection received many positive reviews.
Steve Swallow’s acoustic bass playing helped define the sound of the Jazz of the 1960s in contexts including the Jimmy Giuffre 3, the Paul Bley Trio, the George Russell Sextet (with Eric Dolphy), and the Gary Burton Quartet. In 1970, Swallow reinvented himself as electric bass guitar player and has been yet more influential in this capacity. A member of all Carla Bley’s ensembles for more than 30 years, he co-directs the WATT label with her, and continues to lead his own bands and projects. His most recent release under his own name was the collaboration with Robert Creeley “So There”, with Steve Kuhn on piano. A new Swallow Quintet disc (featuring Carla Bley, Chris Cheek, Steve Cardenas and Jorge Rossy), is in preparation from ECM/XtraWatt.
Joey Baron’s ECM recordings include a series of discs with John Abercrombie: “Class Trip”, “Cat’n’Mouse”, “The Third Quartet”, “Wait Till You See Her” and the brand-new “Within A Song” (recorded the same week as “Wisteria”). Other appearances for the label include John Taylor’s “Rosslyn”, Bill Frisell’s “Lookout for Hope” and Marc Johnson’s “Shades of Jade”. He has also toured and recorded very extensively (several dozen albums) with John Zorn and played with numerous jazz greats including Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Lee Konitz and many more. With Tim Berne and Hank Roberts he co-led the group Miniature, and he has also directed his own groups Killer Joey and Baron Down.