Steve Kuhn

The pianist who played as part of John Coltrane’s quartet in 1960 tells us why he has now released an album surveying Coltrane’s career


How did the idea come up to revisit the music of John Coltrane?
Over the last few years I’ve been doing a Coltrane birthday celebration for a week at the end of September at New York’s Birdland club, along with Joe Lovano and different rhythm sections. Manfred Eicher (label founder) at ECM had suggested it might be nice to go into the studio and record this music. This was surprising because I didn’t think he’d be particularly interested in doing a project like this: I never thought of it for ECM. It all came together last December in New York and we recorded the music then.

What was Coltrane like as a person to perform with?
I worked with John Coltrane in 1960. He was very quiet, he never said much. He basically just said the songs he wanted to play. He wrote out a couple of his originals for me and the voicings that he wanted during the expositions of the melody, and stuff like that. He was a very humble man and he never said too much – to me anyway. The experience itself was something I’ll never forget. We worked about 8-10 weeks and it was in one venue in New York called the Jazz Gallery. Originally he was hired for two to four weeks and he kept on getting extended and wound up working 26 weeks! You never hear of anything like that any more. Working six nights a week and seeing the reaction of the people in the audience was something I’d never experienced before. After his solos, they would get out of their seats and give him a standing ovation. The energy and electricity in the room, night after night after night, was extraordinary. It was quite special to be part of that.

The playlist is a wide survey of Coltrane’s career. How did you decide what to include?
A couple of the songs on the recording are songs I played with him: ‘I Want to Talk About You’, a straight-ahead ballad written by Billy Eckstine; and film theme ‘The Night of a 1,000 Eyes’. But the rest of the songs, with the exception of two originals, are from Coltrane’s late period. I was unfamiliar with that later music, until working at Birdland, and it’s Joe Lovano who is responsible for bringing those songs to the repertoire. The way we approach the music is different – the recording is a homage to John Coltrane but at the same time it’s reflective of what we do ourselves.

What were you listening to that got you into jazz in the first place?
I was a baby and my father had old 78 jazz records, music that was being played at that time. He would hold up a 78 record and in baby talk I would say ‘Benny Goodman’ or ‘Count Basie’ – I could recognise it from the label. I was five when I started piano lessons but I always wanted to play jazz. I started working professionally when I was 13. I was living in Boston and at High School but I was working in clubs! I was too young to legally be there but my father would drive me and stay in the club the whole night while I was there and then drive me home. I had a chance to play with Coleman Hawkins and Chet Baker.

Interview by Neil McKim

Audio clip: Mostly Coltrane: 'I want to talk about you'
ECM 270 1114

Related links:
October 2009 Jazz Choice
Meet the Artists: Stanley Clarke
Meet the Artists: Gary Burton


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