Review: Steve Kuhn at the Green Mill

A belated return to Chicago worth waiting for

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Pianist Steve Kuhn estimates it has been about 30 years since he last played the Chicago area, quite a span for an artist of his talents.

But Kuhn never has enjoyed fame proportionate with his gifts, which helps explain the long absence, as well as the heightened pleasure of hearing him Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club.

Notwithstanding the holiday weekend or the raucous Windy City RibFest clogging up traffic arteries at Lawrence and Broadway, a large audience crowded the Mill to hear what Chicago has been missing. Quite a bit, as it turns out.

A septuagenarian pianist of uncommon elegance and exquisite tone, Kuhn consistently strove to make music rather than an impression. His playing, in other words, showed considerable understatement, as well as ample integrity and craft. Though certain aspects of his trio's performance became repetitive, for the most part Kuhn's appearance proved as moving as it was overdue.

Kuhn devoted most of his first set to standards, a natural choice because he was collaborating with Chicago bassist Eric Hochberg for the first time – though drummer Joey Baron has been a longtime Kuhn associate. These three musicians needed time in which to find common musical ground, and familiar repertoire made that possible.

No one is going to mistake the Green Mill, a singular club that compresses tremendous energy into a very small space, for a concert hall. On the contrary, it's a boisterous place that intensifies and dramatizes everything happening on stage. Yet Kuhn addressed the room – as well as his instrument – as if he were in Orchestra Hall, playing with a delicacy and tonal sheen that forced listeners to lean in a bit to savor his work.

Thus in the evening's vintage opening tune, "There Is No Greater Love," the luster and musical depth of Kuhn's single-note, right-hand lines conveyed Mozartean simplicity and grace. At the same time, however, there was no mistaking the propulsive swing rhythm underlying this work, Kuhn's phrases bounding from one offbeat to the next.

Moreover, in certain passages of "There Is No Greater Love" and other works, Kuhn produced idiosyncratic, cascading figures that rippled between his hands. It's a device no one else in jazz articulates in quite this way, the interlocking figures creating a brilliantly detailed mosaic of sound.

The standard "Emily" doesn't turn up in jazz sets very often anymore, which is too bad, because its haunting, three-note motif opens up ample possibilities for development. Kuhn made the most of them, combining a poet's touch with a profound understanding of the song's underlying harmonic structure.

By playing Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa," Kuhn referenced his early collaboration with the great trumpeter but also transcended the clichés that have gathered around the much-performed piece. Kuhn's version opened with a rhapsodic, impressionistic introduction and included a delightfully eccentric device: a marked slowing of tempo at the ends of certain phrases.

Bassist Hochberg was in the hot seat, playing a role often held by Steve Swallow, but the Chicagoan acquitted himself quite well throughout. Hochberg's intense lyricism and extended solo in "Emily" certainly matched the ardor of Kuhn's conception of the piece.

Drummer Baron stands as a force of nature unto himself, but more than that, as well. For all the power, drive and joy of his playing, he also responded keenly to musical events as they were happening. His outsized solos, meanwhile, overflowed with a spirit of invention and a broad range of color and attack. And yet Baron's tendency to bring an extended crescendo and big finish to virtually every piece eventually became redundant.

That's but a quibble, however, in what amounted to a landmark evening.

Kuhn needs to come back soon.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

The Steve Kuhn Trio plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.

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