Steve Kuhn's Mostly Coltrane

Steve Kuhn’s new CD, Mostly Coltrane (on the ECM label), has no business working, but it does, for the most part really well.

Trane-tribute albums are risky enough; most of them inspire only the desire to spin the originals. Kuhn at least has some bona fides, having played piano in a quartet that Coltrane led in the first few months of 1960 before forming the “classic quartet” that consisted of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones (or, as an occasional sub on drums, Roy Haynes).

The album’s most compelling tunes are those that Kuhn played with Coltrane himself, most of them ballads—“Central Park West,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “I Want to Talk About You”—and they possess a spirit at once gentler but no less urgent than the versions Trane wound up recording. Kuhn doesn’t pound out block chords, as Tyner did, or bebop riffs, as Tommy Flanagan did during his brief stint in the band. Rather, he coaxes tone clusters and colors, a bit reminiscent of how Bill Evans backed Trane when they were both in Miles Davis’ late-‘50s sextet, though harder-edged.

Joe Lovano plays the tenor sax, another bit of derring-do, and he’s in top form, his brusque tone a fine fit for this music. His cover of the opening tune, “Welcome,” is gorgeous, and on “Central Park West,” he’s exceeded only by David Murray’s rendition on his out-of-print 1994 album, Saxmen. Joey Baron, on drums, may pull off the most eye-widening feat: beating the polyrhythms like Jones and spreading the rhythm outward like Haynes. How does he do that? Bassist David Finck, a longtime Kuhn sideman, holds down the fort with firm flair.

Only on the album’s last few tracks, which come mainly from Coltrane’s late-‘60s era, does the spirit sag. Trane was going farther out into interstellar space, and these tunes may need higher-energy backup. Otherwise, it’s a riveting album, and James Farber’s engineering is superb.