With ragged long hair that frames a square-jawed face and fashionably foppish clothes that drape a slender body, Joachim Kuhn looks more like an aging rock star than one of Europe's foremost jazz musicians and the winner of nine Jazz Forum polls as best pianist.
Yet, he says, "What I do is not jazz, not classical, but contemporary European piano music."
An East German native who defected 20 years ago, Kuhn, 42, is a classically trained pianist who turned to jazz, recorded countless jazz-rock fusion albums during a four-year stint in California in the late '70s and has found his niche as a Paris-based solo acoustic pianist whose concert Sunday night at the Beverly Theatre should intrigue music devotees.
"I believe in variety," he says, in an accent as much French as German. "Some of my compositions are in a traditional way with melody; others are abstract."
Born in Leipzig, the town that housed the church from which Bach worked 300 years ago, Kuhn found the oppressive government rule conducive to honing his musical skills. "There was nothing else to do but study," he says of his musical training that began before he was 5. "I gave my first concert (performing a work by Robert Schumann) when I was 6 years old."
But long before his concert debut, he had been exposed to jazz. His brother Rolf, a clarinetist now living in West Germany and 15 years his senior, practiced his instrument to jazz records from the West as the younger Kuhn listened and absorbed.
At 22, Joachim was sent to Vienna to represent his government in a competition established by pianist Friedrich Gulda.
"I was the only jazz musician from East Germany," he says, adding that the bassist Miroslav Vituous and keyboardist Jan Hammer also were in the contest.
It was then that Kuhn defected.
"I couldn't have my mother take me to the train for fear that our saying goodby would attract the authorities," he recalls. "Six months later, though, my mother and father were allowed to leave--they were old and no longer useful to the state--and bring all their belongings. And their apartment could be put to better use."
Shortly thereafter he played the Berlin Jazz Festival and was invited by jazz impresario George Wein to appear at the Newport Festival.
"This was all very fast," he says. "Bob Thiele, who had produced John Coltrane records, asked me if I would make a record for Impulse. I said, 'When?' and he said, 'How about Thursday?' "
While Kuhn has yet to become a household name in America, he has had some successes, mostly as a recording artist in Los Angeles.
"I came first to California with (saxophonist) Joe Henderson," he says. "I came out here and recorded with him in what was to be a three-day stay but became three weeks."
And that visit turned into four years, with the pianist becoming a "keyboarder" on various jazz-rock records.
"I was looking for a synthesizer sound and when I found the sound I really liked, I said, 'So I found it, now I can stop,' " he says. "I asked myself, 'Do you want to be a keyboarder or a pianist?' "
His decision to return to the piano has resulted in his performing two or three concerts each week throughout the world. But America is yet to be conquered.
"When I was here, I never performed publicly," he says, adding that he was "pretty fed up with L.A., but I've changed musical tastes drastically and it's time to play here."