World-class Jazz Pianist Engages With Israeli Melodies

Steve Kuhn, turning 75, is coming to Israel to riff off of Sasha Argov's music.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

When an Israeli music lover talks to a non-Israeli musician who for some reason has heard the music of the late popular Israeli composer Sasha Argov, the Israeli expects the foreign musician to transcend the cultural barrier, realize that he is being exposed to a world-class composer and say something like “Good God, that man was a genius. How lucky you are. If he had been active in a more central place, he would be talked about the way they talk about Gershwin or Piazzolla.”

When American jazz pianist Steve Kuhn, who will perform next Friday at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center and play variations on Argov’s melodies, among other things, is asked what he thought and felt when he heard some of the songs of Israel’s composer, he hesitates and says: “It’s hard to say. They were all in a minor key. I have to say that I’ve traveled a lot in recent months, and I wasn’t free to really devote myself to the project. Only now am I about to dive into it. It’s pretty music, but the minor key makes the songs sound similar to one another.”

The idea to have Kuhn play some of Argov’s songs belongs to Nitzan Kremer, the artistic director of the Jazz Series, which will host the performance. Kuhn agreed, the arrangements (for a piano trio, a string quartet and an oboe) were entrusted to Argentine musician Carlo Franzetti, and Kuhn, who will get into the thick of things in the week and a half remaining until the performance (and may become more enthusiastic about Argov’s music during the course of the work) will play the songs with the ensemble during one of the two halves of the performance (the second half will be dedicated to his own works and to the standards, in a trio format). The performance is entitled: Steve Kuhn and Strings The Magic of Sasha Argov.

‘Is it hot in Israel?’

Kuhn, who will celebrate his 75th birthday two days after the Tel Aviv performance, is a wonderful pianist, and we can be certain that the part in which he will play original music and standards with his trio (drummer Billy Drummond and contrabassist David Wong) will be sharp. There’s also reason to believe that despite his unfamiliarity with Argov’s music, Kuhn will be able to get into the songs. “At first we’ll remain faithful to the melody and harmony of the song, but then we’ll permit ourselves to be freer and to get the songs to work in an environment of improvised music,” he says, once again emphasizing that because of his heavy workload he didn’t find time until now to devote himself to the project and that only now is he starting “to listen to the songs and the arrangements carefully.”

So there’s no point in asking Kuhn detailed questions about his approach to the performance of Argov’s songs, and when asked whether his Eastern European Jewish roots (his family immigrated to the United States from Hungary) will help him in some way to understand Argov’s music, it’s obvious that he doesn’t know how to answer. “Is it very hot in Israel?” he asks, in order to extricate himself from his embarrassment.

When the conversation switches to his biography and to the music to which he devoted his life, his embarrassment disappears and he enjoys telling how he fell in love with jazz already as a baby. “I loved jazz even before I learned to walk,” he declares, and he can be forgiven for exaggerating somewhat. “My father had old 78 records of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, and every morning, before my parents woke up, I would crawl out of my crib and put them on our Victrola. I have a photographic memory and I knew how to connect the record with the music.”

When he began studying piano he quickly realized that playing classical music bored him. “My teacher let me play boogie-woogie pieces in order to interest me, and it worked,” he says. He has always known that he would be a jazz pianist, started playing professionally at the age of 13, and at 21 came to New York and started making his way in the jazz capital.

“I knew it would be hard, and it really was. It still is,” he says. “I don’t recommend that life to anyone, unless the music is deep in his heart. If you want to make money, that’s not the way.”

At the start of his career in New York, Kuhn played in the ensemble of trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and then he plucked up his courage, contacted saxophonist John Coltrane and asked to play with him. After a few meetings Coltrane asked Kuhn to be the pianist in the quartet he started at the time, but Kuhn couldn’t find himself in Coltrane’s ensemble. When he asked the saxophonist to tell him how he should play, Coltrane replied: “I admire you too much to tell you such a thing.”

After two months in the ensemble Coltrane fired Kuhn and hired McCoy Tyner in his place. That’s how Coltrane’s legendary ensemble, one of the greatest in the history of jazz, was formed. Kuhn, who was almost there, was brokenhearted at first. Afterwards he recovered and consoled himself with the fact that he had had the privilege of performing with Coltrane dozens of times. “John’s devotion to music was total,” he says. “That was at a time when he was already off drugs and alcohol, and he dedicated his life to music. On the other hand, most of the musicians around us were interested in alcohol and drugs and chasing women, no less than in music. To be around him was inspiring. Whenever he wasn’t sleeping or eating, the saxophone was in his mouth. Music, music, music.”

Finding his voice

Another jazz giant who was a source of inspiration for Kuhn but also caused him doubts and hesitations was pianist Bill Evans. In the early 1960s Kuhn tried to find his voice as a musician, and when he heard Evans’ music he realized that someone else had beat him to it. “Bill’s approach was similar to mine,” he explains, “but he was 10 years older and far more sure of himself. When I heard him I said, “Good God, I have to find another direction for myself. In a sense I think that was good.”

When did you feel that you had found your voice?

“There was no such moment. It’s a process, and it takes as long as it takes, and it actually never ends. It’s a constant development. You always try to improve, to purify your playing more and more. I think that my voice came together 20 or 25 years ago, and I continue to improve it. It was definitely not a moment of revelation: ‘Oh, I’ve found my voice!’ It doesn’t work like that.”

Kuhn played regularly with the jazz greats of his period and issued dozens of albums, but he never received recognition from the general public. “I’m in the age group of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner, and I’ve never received the recognition that they did,” he says. “It used to bother me, but I simply ... I receive more recognition than in the past, but that’s not the point. The important thing is to make a decent living, to hope that you’re influencing young musicians, and to bring music to people, to touch their emotions, their heart. That’s what’s important in music. The technique and the knowledge are only a means.”

In less than two weeks you’ll be 75. Is that a signal that means it’s time to slow down?

“No. No. No. No. I’ll have time to slow down after I die. I’ve always said that when I die I hope it will be onstage. Music is my life. Without it I wouldn’t be here. I’ve been blessed in being able to play for a long time, and to achieve the degree of success I have, and to bring music to people. Sometimes they approach me after the performance with smiling faces, and sometimes in tears. The main thing is that there’s a strong emotional response. That’s the whole story. That’s all the reward I need.”

Steve Kuhn: 'I loved jazz even before I learned to walk.'