Steve Kuhn’s Portland festival edition of his trio teamed the pianist with his longtime collaborator Joey Baron on drums and Buster Williams playing bass. The flow of Kuhn’s melodic lines, the density of his harmonies and his assured swing established him long since as one of the major trio pianists in modern jazz. The humor in his playing is not always immediately obvious, but it was evident in his first chorus of improvisation on “There is No Greater Love” that he enjoyed quoting “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” That may have been a whim of the moment or a way to draw in the audience. In any case, the set was off to a comfortable start. Baron used a butterfly touch with brushes on cymbals to create delicate patterns behind a powerful Williams solo. The bassist showed no sign of weariness despite having played the demanding previous concert by the Blakey Jazz Message group. After creative repetition in a tag ending, Kuhn closed the piece with hand vibrato on the keyboard. Sensed and seen more than heard, the vibrato had the effect of keeping the audience’s attention—and silence—until the final chord had faded.
Kuhn followed with “Two By 2,” a blues with altered harmonies, the title tune from his 2007 duo album with bassist Steve Swallow. Then came “Blue Bossa” by trumpeter Kenny Dorham, the first name musician to hire the young pianist in the early ‘60s. Kuhn’s unaccompanied out-of-tempo introduction was a high point of the set. He told the audience about the importance to his development of the eight weeks he spent in John Coltrane’s quartet in 1960, then introduced a musician heavily influenced by Coltrane. Tenor saxophonist Devin Phillips is a New Orleanian who moved to Portland following Hurricane Katrina. He has made his mark in Oregon’s jazz community.
His dreadlocks contrasting with his impeccable business suit and sensible shoes, Phillips played Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You” and Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” The choice of tunes was intended as a tribute to Coltrane. It was effective on that basis, but the guest shot with Kuhn also served to provide a major showcase for a young player of considerable potential. A favorite in his new hometown, Phillips stimulated substantial applause and cheering. Perhaps even more rewarding, he earned a smile from the veteran Williams for his up-tempo playing on “Mr. P.C.” Kuhn sat out Phillips’ first choruses of the famous blues, then entered with stealth and began increasing his power through several choruses. That set up Williams for a complex bass solo ending with his simply walking the 4/4 time. That, in turn, introduced a round of four-bar exchanges between Phillips and Baron, leading into the final statement of the theme. It was a stimulating performance, crafted on the fly by four canny musicians.
Phillips departed to long applause and the trio played Henry Mancini’s “Slow Hot Wind, which Kuhn laced with the flurries of 16th note triplets that have become one of his signatures. He played the piece out with a slow cool ending that subsided into a natural fade. “Stella By Starlight” was an exercise in reflection, rich with deep harmonies. Kuhn closed with two of his best-known compositions. For “Trance,” Baron produced red and green rods, using them to etch shimmers, splashes and whispers of sound behind Kuhn’s solo and a mesmerizing Williams bass improvisation. In the fast waltz “Oceans in the Sky,” Kuhn achieved the unique intensity that gifted players can generate in ¾ time. He built the feeling into a platform upon which Williams and Baron constructed what became not so much a duet as a mutual solo, two minds joining as one. Then Baron executed a long, melodic statement full of suspensions, silences and pauses. It was wizardry at the end of a magical set.
Next time: wrapping up the festival.