It occurs to me that this German pianist, now in his 75th year, is not as well-known as he might be, so let me fill in some details for you. Influenced by his brother, clarinettist Rolf Kühn, he turned professional in 1961 and in 1964 with his own trio he presented the first free-form jazz in the German Democratic Republic. In 1966 he moved to settle in Hamburg. Since 1968 he has mostly lived in Paris. Over the years he has worked with a wide variety of musicians including Don Cherry, Slide Hampton, Phil Woods and Jean-Luc Ponty. During the 1970s he moved again, this time to California, where he became active on the West Coast fusion scene and recorded with Billy Cobham and Michael Brecker amongst others. Over the years he has built up a varied and impressive discography.
Fast forward to the present and Kühn’s latest release which, as his publicity neatly states, marries “the wisdom of old age” with “the tempestuousness of youth” highlighting the cross-generational nature of the trio with young lions Chris Jennings on bass and Eric Schaefer at the drums. The description also sums up how both wisdom and tempestuousness co-exist within Kühn’s own playing – looking to the future with the vast history of jazz behind him. Described as the ‘New Trio’ the group has been in existence since 2015 and this is their second release, following ‘Beauty and Truth’ in 2016.
What shines through in abundance on this album is Kuhn’s musical curiosity and it is also clear that working with his younger colleagues has re-energised his playing which is both powerful and clear. The album consists of eleven tracks, six of which were written by the pianist, with the bassist and drummer contributing one each. In addition, there is a tune from The Doors and a piece by Mussorgsky. The opening title track is very brief and sets the scene for what is to come. The first thing that one notices is the crisp clarity of the recording which is enhanced by listening on headphones. The Mussorgsky piece which follows is majestic and reveals its delights slowly and gently.
‘The Crystal Ship’ from The Doors is next and works very well as a jazz vehicle. It has a blues flavour, gradually becoming more complex as it progresses and yet retaining its allure. ‘Mustang’ is a sheer delight and allows the rhythm section to put their stamp on proceedings. Perhaps the most adventurous piece on the album is ‘But Strokes of Folk’, which keeps the listener’s attention throughout and raises the heat and the tempo. Jennings’ ‘Casbah Radio’ is a great up-tempo piece. ‘New Pharoah’ is a little more abstract than what has gone before and brings the drums to the fore. Gentle abstraction is the description that I would apply to the final piece on the album ‘Phrasen’, at least when it commences, but things soon heat up when we get to the theme statement which is somewhat reminiscent of Ornette Coleman, all probing adventurousness and great fun and including a fine feature for the bassist. Kühn is quoted as having said that he likes to improvise life – not knowing what he is going to do and to “Do it by doing”. This he certainly does here in producing a sometimes challenging but always enjoyable album.