Between 1989 and 1995, Concord Records produced 42 solo piano recitals, all recorded in Maybeck Recital Hall in Berkeley in California. Each recital featured a different jazz pianist; the series eventually consisted of 42 CDs. The entire series is now available on streaming services…so LJN invited pianist Liam Noble to reflect on the series, and also on the art of the solo piano recital.
In this article, the third of four, Liam Noble considers “the art of blending in and sticking out,” with reference to Dave McKenna (1930-2008) and Steve Kuhn (b. 1938):
Jazz and how you do it. A concept so full of myths and legends that, whilst alluding to a higher truth “beyond” facts as myths and legends do, confuses and enlightens with such regularity as to be almost useless. Almost. For a start, it’s often assumed that there’s a common language shared between all instruments (true up to a point), and that their roles are “democratic” within an ensemble (I don’t remember voting in that “democracy”). And I suppose that to aspire to that state of music making does not hurt, the idea of freedom is a good one. But what about the piano?
Let’s face it, solo jazz piano is another thing entirely. You’re on your own out there, and all those neat, entry level left hand moves one learns at college, and those clear, sharp lines that dance deftly around those old structures: they’re not going to help you, not much. That would be like putting the windows in first and building the walls and foundations around them. No, the piano has its own history. When it’s in a crowd of instruments, even a trio, you can sit on the top of and it’s all peachy. Ting ting ting, swing-a-ling ling. But solo piano is mired in silence, and when you stop everything stops. When you leave space, that space is silence. I feel like these two have interesting ways of dealing with the problem.
Dave Mckenna and Steve Kuhn are like polar opposites in some way. Mckenna didn’t even think of himself as more than a self-taught “saloon” pianist, knocking out the tunes and threading a set together by daisy chaining words of the titles – “Exactly Like You/”I’m Glad There Is You”/”I’m Glad I Waited For You”. Used to providing an attractive backdrop to the low rumble of bar conversation, the rapt attention of the Maybeck audience must have felt a little too quiet. Steve Kuhn, coming up around Paul Bley, Steve Swallow and Pete La Roca, playing for a while in Coltrane’s quartet with Elvin Jones: he’s a “real artist”, he studied Russian classical technique with celebrated teacher Margaret “Madame” Chaloff, Serge’s mother. What I like about them both is that they somehow mark out the perimeters of jazz piano history as told by these forty two recordings, which is not exhaustive but it is extensive. Steering clear of the middle ground, they both make me think about the extremes of what a solo piano recital of (mostly) standards could sound like.
Honestly, with solo piano it’s as much as you can do to start the thing moving and keep it there, wherever you have set there up to be. Sticking with some kind of rickety transport metaphor, Mckenna’s locomotive steams along on invisible rails, it seems impossible that he will come off, seeming to sit back as the machine steers itself. Kühn, on the other hand, is a shopping trolley on cobblestones, every bump and jerk adding colour to what is already an eventful ride.
It’s interesting to compare the two pianists’ opening numbers. Mckenna’s approach is to put back the bass and drums using what has been described as “three handed” technique” (*). (The pain of having to produce a note, which brass, wind and string instrumentalists suffer every time they play, is here replaced by the expectation that pianists can grow an extra limb and be in control of it to boot). Mckenna’s “Dream Dancing” is all smoothness: it doesn’t sound virtuosic but it is, and its pitched at a level just below the comforting protection of a bar room conversation. Except here, at Maybeck Recital Hall, the room is silent. What you feel is the pulse, always, the constant polyphony between the hands serving the bounce, always. As the right hand lines move into the shriller high register, he backs off, similarly with the low end. The balance is impeccable, but it’s a warm perfection. When he shifts tempo halfway through, it’s an easy slide not an abrupt shift.
Kuhn’s rendition of “Old Folks” is, right from the opening, a weightier sound, the colla voce movement punctuated by long right hand breaks and eccentric repeated notes, a sound that he’s made his own over the years. He goes where his fingers take him: and when he hits the stride section, it’s a peculiar, clipped feel like Monk’s but with less front on the note. The right hand lines speak the same language as Mckenna’s, but around halfway through we realise that Kuhn’s left hand is really low against the really high tinkles of the right hand. Jazz pianists are often warned off these extremes: and when we get to the closing statement of the theme, it’s like Rachmaninov’s left hand with a music box in the right. Kuhn takes the standard language and makes it personal.
Mckenna’s only foray into specific jazz repertoire is Ellington’s “C Jam Blues”, and here he almost approaches Kuhn’s extremes of range, but his proclivity for swing takes over and again it’s pure feel, pure drums. The subject of Mckenna’s music is the optimum placement of four beats in the bar, and as a consequence the lines themselves become less important: shades of Oscar Peterson’s drive, but to my ears, these lines sound more relaxed, more improvised. As the piece fades, it’s as if he’s disappearing over a hill whilst the intensity continues to burn bright. And there’s something about the modesty of his playing that appeals to me a lot, that also makes me feel old…
Kuhn’s version of Miles Davis’s “Solar” is one of my favourite pieces in this whole series.
He’s going back to some kind of pre-history, the opening bass drone insistent and isolated like a tolling bell, the right hand answering in fragmentary incantations. Once we recognise the theme, it’s reframed in a kind of timelessness, suspended in amber, before leading us back into jazz territory. Kuhn’s walking bass, compared to Mckenna’s, is more unstable, pitted as it is against increasingly abstract right hand gestures. The opening atmosphere returns, and when he hits the last bass note, he seems to be trying to extract that strange overtone that rings out more with every strike. It’s a major third on a minor chord or, leaving the technical details aside, a strange and bittersweet noise, the natural acoustics of the strings cutting across the artifice of a harmonic system invented by humans. A journey towards, and away from, the traditional “Solar” we know and love.
Neither of these musicians sound like they went to college. I think you should only sound like that whilst you’re at college. Then, when you leave (and preferably before), the work begins, shaking off that old skin. Left hand voicings, licks, these are “under the bonnet”, like an alternator is to a formula one driver. They are there, but they exist to serve. Groove, texture, emotion, modesty and eccentricity. Blending in and sticking out. These are not techniques, but feelings translated into sound.
LINKS: (*) Dave McKenna talks to Ted Panken about “three-handed technique”
Article 2: “Round Midnight”
The Maybeck Recital Series (in numerical order) from Spotify
Every album and track listed at Jazzlists
Buy Liam Noble’s solo piano album A Room Somewhere (Which includes Round Midnight)
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