Steve Kuhn has been creating, with ever increasing authority, a kind of quintessential piano trio jazz for the past 30 years or so, more or less relinquishing the more outre elements that placed him (if only briefly) in the company of John Coltrane. Trane quickly intuited that the frontier wasn’t the ideal setting for a player of Kuhn’s temperament; Wisteria confirms that chord-based tunes give the pianist exactly the format that produces his best work. He’s given to romanticism in his playing — albeit not sentimentality — and hewing closely to structure, keeping company with sympathetic sidemen, getting a first rate piano on which to record, and having the right engineer are all vital components for successful albums.
Although the tunes on Wisteria are all originals, they have the feel of familiar standards. And the rapport that Kuhn has with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Joey Baron adds to that familiarity. This isn’t to suggest complacency; the entire album is grounded in intellect and profound interplay. Swallow, with his ultra-smooth delivery on electric bass, serves two functions: When playing in a supporting role, his easy fluency and liquid tone reflect much of the qualities of Kuhn’s own playing. His solos, often played in the instrument’s upper register, add an almost guitar-like voice to the group. Baron, regrettably not as ubiquitous on the scene as he once was, is an inspired wild card choice. His natural aggression brings a welcome edge to the playing, curbing even the potential for excessive sweetness. A tune like “Chalet” illustrates how satisfying moving a couple of chords back and forth can sound if the time feel is good, the melodic invention ongoing, and the conversation stays lively. “Adagio” is even more impressive; a bittersweet hybrid bossa nova/tango, its urbanity gives a glossy veneer to a piece with real poignancy. If Bill Evans had played a Bud Powell composition, it might have sounded like “Romance.”
I like the expertise with which Swallow and Baron move the rubato piano opening into subtle waltz time. But much of the album is about subtlety, about the difference between a minor seventh chord and a minor major seventh chord — the ways that shifting one note can convey a great deal of emotional information. Three adult players with nothing to prove, Steve Kuhn, Steve Swallow, and Joey Baron know what it takes to make an album that’s easy on the ears without ever becoming formulaic or simplistic.