© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
What is the essence of the Russian piano technique?
“You breathe as if you were playing a horn, from the diaphragm. You think of your fingertips as a reed and the keys as a mouthpiece. The sound comes out of you; it travels to the soundboard and out of the piano. It's a complete flow that should not be broken. If you're playing with a heavy arm or dragging weight down in your hands, the sound will stop somewhere in the elbow and you'll feel tension in the forearm. If you feel tension, you'll know you're not playing correctly. If you want an incredible sforzando, the sound should come from the bottom of the feet, and you should push off the floor so that the sound travels up through the feet, the knees, the hips, the torso, through your shoulder and elbow, and out through the fingertips. It requires a very light arm. Actually there should be no weight in the arm because that will slow down the flow. Most pianists will bring their wrists down, and you can just see them physically stopping the sound from flowing into the piano.”
- Steve Kuhn, Jazz pianist
Have you ever been a fan of a Jazz musician who basically “fell off your radar screen;” who became “invisible,” so to speak?
Such was the case for me concerning the music of pianist Steve Kuhn.
I remember his work with the Stan Getz Quartet in the early 1960’s with bassist Scott LaFaro, a recording he made with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete LaRoca and his wonderful performance on Gary McFarland’s brilliant The October Suite [c. 1967]. Then, nothing.
Of course, I later found out that Steve was among those Jazz musicians who made the move to Europe in the late 1960s as the USS Jazz was sinking into a morass of collectively boring “commercial” music.
I didn’t rediscover Steve’s music until a little over twenty years later when I acquire a Concord CD of his November 18, 1990 solo piano performance at the Maybeck Recital Hall in Berkeley, CA. [Live at the Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume Thirteen Concord CD-4484]
Carl Jefferson, the then owner of Concord was very taken with Steve’s playing and issued a wonderful trio recording by Steve entitled Looking Back which was recorded with David Finck on bass and Lewis Nash on drums in a New York studio about a month prior to his appearance at Maybeck. [Concord - 4446]
I haven’t had a need to look back on Steve’s music since because I haven’t lost sight of it for the last twenty-five years or so.
By way of background, Steve Kuhn's tone production and keyboard dynamics set him apart from other pianists. Those assets were developed under the guidance of the Boston piano tutor Madame Margaret Chaloff, the teacher of Ran Blake, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and other prominent pianists. (Margaret Chaloff was the mother of Serge Chaloff, the talented baritone saxophonist in the Woody Herman band of the early fifties.) Madame Chaloff schooled Kuhn in "the Russian technique," which has enabled him to make the piano's lower register hum like a string bass, and its upper register ring like chimes.
Kuhn was the first (and only white) pianist to work with the John Coltrane Quartet. I had always wondered about the source of this musical affinity, but it turned out to be Steve's temerity that got him the job. Kuhn had simply called John in I960 to ask for an audition because he knew the saxophonist had left Miles Davis's band to go out on his own. As a result, Kuhn worked with Coltrane for two months at the Jazz Gallery, until McCoy Tyner took over. In the interview below, Steve offers some provocative insights on Coltrane's use of chord progressions.
In 1967, when jazz was in its commercial doldrums, Kuhn moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where the competition for jobs was less fierce. Among Kuhn's other stories of his life in Europe, he tells of discovering an abandoned nine-foot Bosendorfer piano, at least seventy years old, stored in a castle, a find that can be likened to a wine connoisseur's stumbling across a forgotten case of Lafite-Rothschild. Kuhn bought the piano, which had four extra bass notes, for $5,000 only to find it did not hold a tuning very well, which is comparable to learning that some of the Lafite-Rothschild corks had developed leaks. Kuhn returned home (without his piano) in 1971 and began rebuilding his career. He feared his absence would mean "the kiss of death" but found that his ECM albums placed him more in demand than ever.
Trance [ECM-1052/1974]and Ecstasy [ECM 1058] are an interesting pair for comparative listening because they present contrasting aspects of Kuhn's playing. The first is a hard-driving quartet with Steve Swallow on bass, Jack Dejohnette, drums, and Sue Evans, percussion; the second, recorded within days of Trance, is a pensive and impressionistic piano solo, perhaps because of the way it originated. "We had just finished mixing Trance'' Steve explained, "when [producer] Manfred Eicher told me he'd like me to do a solo album. I hadn't prepared at all, so I stayed up all night trying to figure out what I was going to do. I went into the studio the next evening, played for ninety minutes straight, and that was it." At the time we talked, Steve was writing new music for his upcoming collaboration with singer Sheila Jordan (later released as Playground -ECM 1159/1980], which became Kuhn's best-selling work.
I found this wonderful interview that Steve gave to Len Lyons circa 1980 in The Great Jazz Pianists and I thought it might serve as a starting point for a closer look at Steve Kuhn’s from where I left off, as it were - www.stevekuhnmusic.com is also a reference point.
“Steve Kuhn and I had our sole conversation on the third floor of a family-operated Chinese restaurant called Sam Wo's. It is famous for authentic cuisine that bears no resemblance to the Americanized Chinese food served nearly everywhere else in Chinatown. Most of the clientele is Oriental. As we watched the outdoor fruit and vegetable vendors below, we must have been a curiosity ourselves, with my tape recorder and mike propped up on the table centerpiece and with Steve wearing oversize rose-colored butterfly-shaped sunglasses.
What was your musical background prior to your studies with Margaret Chaloff?
I started piano lessons when I was five, although I had already shown a great interest in jazz. In fact, my father was buying me records when I was a baby because he could see how well I related to it. I'd get up at six A.M. and start putting his records on. I used to have a photographic memory, which is pretty well gone by now, but even before I could talk, my father would hold up a record and I'd tell him what it was in baby talk. Actually I was written up in 1943 in a book called Low Man on the Totem Pole by H. Allen Smith [a book of oddities, like Ripley's Believe It or Not, now out of print] because of my ability to recall these records. Well, I learned how to play the instrument from lessons, but I had to undo my technique seven years later. I always had a great feeling for jazz music, so as a reward for a good lesson, my teacher would give me a boogie-woogie piece to play. Even at that time I was bored by the European repertoire because I had to play a song the same way each time. The reason I was drawn to jazz was the improvisation and the rhythmic differences between the two musics. To this day I feel the same way.
When did you start your studies with Margaret Chaloff?
When we moved from Brooklyn to Boston in 1950.
What music were you listening to then?
My father used to buy the seventy-eight [rpm] records of Benny Goodman. He'd also bring home records of the boogie-woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. Duke Ellington records, too. I listened a lot to Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, and Teddy Wilson, and I was influenced by all of them at one time. Bill Evans was probably my most recent influence. I heard him for the first time when I was in high school, and it seemed that we were going in the same direction, except that he had it together and I didn't. I remember thinking, well, there it is. What am I going to do now? Ironically, I had the opportunity later of playing with Scott [LaFaro], who had been with Bill.
Did LaFaro's bass playing affect your piano style in any way?
Scott had an incredible knowledge of standard songs, and I do, too. We would pick out very obscure songs that no one had heard of, and what we could do harmonically was a kick for me. We could hear each other taking the songs out, stretching them at certain points. It wasn't playing without harmony, but it was using the harmony in a way that freed us. I had never played with a bassist who could do that.
It's surprising to hear that you know a lot of standards, since you never seem to include them in your repertoire.
When I was a kid, I went through the fake books page by page and learned the tunes. It helped me subsequently because I've done-and still do-commercial jobs, where you go through one hundred songs in a night, from the 1920's to the seventies. I do these jobs for financial reasons, and I don't really mind doing them because a lot of the players are very good within that context. Most young pianists know the tunes from ten years ago, but there's an incredible number of standards that are good to know because they can show you what's been done. John Coltrane had an incredible knowledge of standards, too. When I was working with him, I realized, for example, that the release to Have You Met Miss Jones? had the same harmonic sequence he was using in Giant Steps. The tonal centers were related by an augmented triad-E Major to C Major to A flat Major in the key of C, for example. He would precede each one of these tonal centers with its dominant and interpolate this sequence, if he had eight bars to fool around with. He did it in I Can't Get Started, But Not for Me, and other standards we used to play.
What exactly is the Russian technique?
Basically, it's an approach that enables you to do anything dynamically, from the softest pianissimo to the most incredible sforzando and anything in between. It enables you to play as fast as you need to with projection and without getting tired. I call it the Russian school because they were the ones who came up with the approach. All the great European pianists have used it.
What is the essence of this technique?
You breathe as if you were playing a horn, from the diaphragm. You think of your fingertips as a reed and the keys as a mouthpiece. The sound comes out of you; it travels to the soundboard and out of the piano. It's a complete flow that should not be broken. If you're playing with a heavy arm or dragging weight down in your hands, the sound will stop somewhere in the elbow and you'll feel tension in the forearm. If you feel tension, you'll know you're not playing correctly. If you want an incredible sforzando, the sound should come from the bottom of the feet, and you should push off the floor so that the sound travels up through the feet, the knees, the hips, the torso, through your shoulder and elbow, and out through the fingertips. It requires a very light arm. Actually there should be no weight in the arm because that will slow down the flow. Most pianists will bring their wrists down, and you can just see them physically stopping the sound from flowing into the piano.
It sounds like a fairly traditional method of tone production.
Most pianists aren't even aware of it, though. Unfortunately they don't go beyond "How fast can I play?" They don't think about how to allow the sound to get out. The acoustic piano is capable of producing incredibly beautiful sound.
That must make playing the electric piano, as you did on Trance, very frustrating, or very different, for you in terms of producing a satisfactory sound.
Right. I don't even think about it when I play the electric. I play it a lot on commercial jobs, though, because the acoustic pianos are often so bad. It's like a toy, a color, but I've been playing it long enough to have an identifiable style. You can't voice chords on an electric as you would on acoustic. It gets muddy.
You've written some songs yourself for your upcoming album with Sheila Jordan. Is this the first time you've composed tunes with lyrics?
No, I'd written a bunch of songs with lyrics when I was living in Sweden, and a couple of Scandinavian singers have recorded them. Basically I wrote them thinking melodically, so that they could be sung, although they're not easy to sing. The lyrics are perhaps a little bit "out," but I don't know. That's for other people to say. But there's so much you can learn from the standard repertoire. It really opens your ears up to other things. It enables you to play without harmony so that it means something, although I don't believe there is complete freedom in playing.
What do you mean by playing “without harmony"?
Using a pedal tone, which Coltrane got into after a period of very dense harmonic playing. He would use one or two harmonic references throughout a song, as he did on So What [from Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, on Columbia]. It was basically D for sixteen bars, E flat for eight bars, and then back to D. Ultimately, he worked with only one harmonic reference point, and then in Ascension [from Best of John Coltrane: His Greatest Years, on Impulse] there was nothing harmonically.
Why don't you believe in totally free playing?
Because I think there has to be a reference point. If you brought an elephant out of the jungle, sat him in front of a piano, and let him swing his trunk to hit the keys, that would be free!
If all players have reference points, what distinguishes the innovator?
When the frame of reference is completely in the subconscious and you can play you. Of course, there's nothing new under the sun, but there comes a point in every player's development when he is no longer imitative. The player's influences can still be identified, but they are no longer that important. Bill Evans is an example for what he did to further the harmonic concept and the voicing of chords in the left hand and the way he was so careful about harmonizing songs.
What is "harmonizing" a song?
Well, he re-harmonized them actually. It's being able to understand what the composer had in mind and creating something personal out of it. Even the songwriters themselves often use very naive chords for their songs. Now I don't mean simply changing chords just for the sake of doing that. That's really corny, though a lot of people do it. It has to mean something. Bill could use the basic harmony and make it much more sophisticated. Bill is a great song player and an innovator. One should play the total sum of one's experiences, but this can be done by an innovator in a personal way.”
The following video features a later version of Steve’s trio with Miroslav Vitous on bass and Aldo Romano on drums performing Ivan Lins’ The Island from Steve’s 1989 Owl Records CD - Oceans in the Sky.