Joachim Kühn Birthday Edition - CD1: Trio Kühn, Humair, Jenny-Clark; CD2: Europeana
(2 CDs ACT 6017-2. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)
Historians with a deeper knowledge (and more space) than me have hypothesised about why there have been so few world-class jazz musicians from Germany. A simple fact is that pianist Joachim Kühn is one of the very greatest of them, and a double CD to mark his 70th birthday (tomorrow, 15th March) is just cause for celebration.
These are not recent recordings, although the first disc, Trio, consists of material that is previously unissued. Its six pieces come from two sessions - separated by eight years - from JazzFest Berlin, and feature Kühn alongside French bass player Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark and Switzerland-born drummer Daniel Humair.
Michel Portal's Pastor opens with cymbals, drums and a bell; there’s a brief bass riff, and the music bristles with virtuosity and energy as the melody takes shape. The other tunes are by Kühn. On Heavy Birthday, the pianist produces a plethora of explosive, melodic runs and dense clusters during the course of some stunning, cataclysmic episodes. There’s a profound empathy between the three men, which is hugely impressive but not surprising: Kühn's relationship with Jenny-Clark dates back to the 1960s, and this trio first convened during the following decade.
There’s more drama and strong rhythm on the tumbling, bubbly More Tuna, and also on Guylene, which is co-composed by Kühn and Humair. Jenny-Clark has an ear for taste and a nose for excitement; he is all over the bass as he slides, pops and double-stops with a virtuosic, devil-may-care commitment that’s reminiscent of Scotsman Ron Mathewson at his best.
It isn't all crash-bang-wallop. Easy to Read is rhapsodic and tuneful, and, in a reversal of standard structure, Heavy Hanging begins with a diffuse improvisation from which a subtle, flexible pulse emerges. Like another British treasure, Bryan Spring, Humair has the technique and intelligence to play notated music at the same time as the wondrous ideas that jump into his head and pour from his heart.
Fast or slow, loud or soft, the distinction between composition and improvisation is blurred, but the execution is as focused as you can imagine. These guys appear to put every ounce of emotional strength into creating their magic. Forget Jarrett and EST for the time being; the turbulent gorgeousness of these tracks demonstrates that, during its lifetime, Kühn’s trio was at the pinnacle of the jazz landscape.
The second CD, Europeana (Jazzphony no.1) could hardly be more different. Kühn is the featured soloist with a star-studded band and the Radio Philharmonie Hannover NDR, conducted by Michael Gibbs. This album - recorded in Hannover and Hamburg in 1994 - garnered many accolades when it was first issued, and remains something of a curiosity.
13 traditional or folk songs from eight European countries are arranged by Gibbs. There is scope for individual expression within a tightly structured presentation, but it is not very “jazzy” and – more to the point – Gibbs’ usually-distinctive style is rarely discernable. Kühn is afforded joint top billing and has the lion’s share of the work, with a number of solos and interludes. Several other big names including Django Bates on tenor horn and Theo Wiemes on French horn have just one featured outing.
There are many highlights, including Three Angels, from Germany. A simple orchestral motif with rather Delian harmony is developed, and suddenly bursts into life with the wonderful sound of Albert Mangelsdorff on trombone and Christof Lauer’s tenor sax. Kühn takes a solo before the tune fizzles out with a growl.
Representing Ireland, She Moved Through the Fair has Klaus Doldinger’s soprano saxophone laid over strings. There’s an incongruous unaccompanied piano section before the orchestra returns with more blues-inflected sax; this is peaceful and lovely. Londonderry Air has beautiful work from Kühn and Jenny-Clark, and then the orchestra plays the well-known syrupy dirge.
All three songs from France are noteworthy dances. The combination of orchestra, soloist - Markus Stockhausen on piccolo trumpet - and piano trio is best exemplified by Heaven Has Created. More obviously from Gibbs’ pen is The Shepherd of Breton, which features Richard Galliano on accordion and Kühn’s piano intertwined with distant fanfares. Crebe De Chet has a swinging piano trio with Jon Christensen on drums, and a spiky, unsettling and rather sinister orchestral melody.
Less fascinating – yet all with flair and interest - are two pieces each from Norway and Finland, and one from Sweden and Scotland. The typical Spanish tinge of Otra Jazzpãna, which is based on the familiar El Vito, brings the album to a close. Kühn, Jenny-Clark and Christensen shine once again with a joyful swagger alongside an orchestra at full tilt.
So, two very different facets of the great German pianist are on display here, revealing his single-mindedness, broad vision, and the unique excitement that he creates. Kühn says that he will be recording solo in a Berlin studio on his 70th birthday, and his elder brother – the clarinettist Rolf Kühn - will join him the following day. The results of these sessions are eagerly awaited.