Steve Kuhn approaches the piano with a calm and confident demeanor. Well into his sixth decade as a professional jazz artist, he has a virtual lifetime relationship with his instrument, a connection reaching well beyond the mechanics of technique and deeply into the collaborative art of making music.
On Sunday afternoon Kuhn made one of his rare Southland appearances at the Rising Stars Jazz Foundation in Beverly Hills, performing with bassist David Finck and drummer Joe La Barbera. And the results were splendid, one example after another of a mature, inventive improvisational mind at work.
Kuhn, who studied as a child with the highly regarded Boston teacher Margaret Chaloff, clearly has the dexterity to play anything. And there were moments of finger-flashing brilliance bursting through his solos from time to time. But more often Kuhn's piano mastery took a more subtle approach, weaving complex tapestries of musical imagination, enhanced by the remarkably luminous sound of the foundation's superb Fazioli instrument.
Each selection received a treatment that was deeply empathic to the material. In standards such as "Stella by Starlight," "There Is No Greater Love" and "Like Someone in Love," Kuhn's improvisations always remained in contact -- either by direct statement, by paraphrase or by tone and mood -- with the original material. Jazz-based numbers such as Sonny Rollins' "Airegin," Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa" and Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" triggered more free-flying excursions, often spiced with witty quotes from other tunes. Less familiar originals -- from Kuhn and frequent associate Steve Swallow -- added even more texture to a continually fascinating program.
Both Finck and La Barbera are experts in the challenging subtleties of the piano trio, an instrumentation demanding emotional levels ranging from whisper-soft gentleness to full-out power. Finck added solos that flowed smoothly in and around Kuhn's piano textures. La Barbera's beautifully transparent accompaniment passages intensified into expressive, layered percussion in his individual moments of exposition.
At 67, Kuhn has been a visible jazz presence since, barely out of his teens, he worked with the likes of John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Art Farmer. But his extraordinary abilities have never quite received the full acknowledgment that is long overdue.