It's unusual to hear a musician make technical advances past a certain point in his or her career. Artists mature and develop, their conceptions might change somewhat, and they may respond to (or militate against) emerging trends in music. But chops generally come early, if they come at all, and they seldom improve in any dramatic fashion.
Pianist Steve Kuhn has always been an engaging player. He has a singing tone, the ability to play emotionally without becoming cloying, and a good ear for material. But he's never been much of a technician — until now. Mostly Ballads boasts 12 tunes — like the title says, mostly ballads — played either solo or with longtime cohort bassist Harvey Swartz. The collected works present Kuhn as a noticeably improved piano "player." Even as overworked tune as "Body and Soul" holds interest start to finish.
This is largely due to the level of mutual understanding achieved by both players. There are moments when piano and bass pause simultaneously, as if breathing together, then move on. "Emily" provides Swartz a chance to solo at length. He's got a warm, clear tone and a gift for melodic improvisation. When Kuhn reenters to solo, it's evident that he has spent time listening to some of Bill Evans's versions of the tune. The solo piano take of Sonny Rollins's "Airegin" is fascinating. Kuhn chooses to alternate between hovering fifths in the left hand and fast, intricately articulated single note lines in the right, a kind of balancing act between darkness and light. He's got the good sense to leave "Tennessee Waltz" alone, allowing the intrinsic stateliness of the melody to be carried with an almost gospel simplicity. He plays the tune through a couple of times, and then lets it be. He doesn't add much to "Danny Boy," either (although there is a bit more harmonic augmentation), and the two pieces seem conjoined as a result. Kuhn approaches "'Round Midnight" unsentimentally. The piece retains its inherent noirishness, but Kuhn doesn't draw out particular lines, and he fluctuates between melodic and harmonic improvisation.
"Yesterday's Gardenias" is one of the two exceptions to the "mostly ballads" promise. Kuhn delivers the appealing melody clearly, and then Swartz begins a strong, rock-solid walk, over which the pianist spins out quick witted single lines. Nicely paced, and nicely placed. The Bud-like "How High the Moon" illuminates a rarely recognized connection. Powell may have been a lot darker player than Kuhn, but there's no mistaking how profound an influence he was or how thoroughly his lessons still hold. The closing "Two for the Road" is melancholy and tinged with a sense of loss, but Swartz's deep pedal tones add a feeling of buoyancy too, and this simple touch makes all the difference. Mostly Ballads is great late night music. It's accessible enough to be appreciated by anyone who enjoys mainstream jazz, but it never goes for the easy answers, making it successful at every level.