The Permanently Youthful Old Master
Joachim Kühn is a German pianist of world class, and a stand-alone figure in European jazz. He shows absolutely no signs either of slackening or of surrendering to his age - he is in his early seventies. Kühn's musical curiosity is as boundless as it always was, and his urge to keep creating new music is undimmed. It seems as if for him to stand still would be to go backwards. He lives in a finca in a remote part of Ibiza, overlooking the Mediterranean, where he is to be found either at the piano – he plays for hours every day - or dipping into his vast library of music. He has over 1,500 CDs, ranging from old recordings to up-to-the-minute releases.
For “Beauty & Truth” he and producer Siggi Loch have made a selection of new and old pieces, reaching out into unfamiliar repertoire, and recorded them with the new trio. “These are strong melodies which can be given a really distinctive shape, like for example “Blues For Pablo” by Gil Evans” he explains. “The secret of that piece lies in just five notes, but they are the key to unlock a whole musical cosmos.” There are also pieces which in their different ways are of personal significance to him. “Kattorna” by Krzysztof Komeda is a case in point: “I was present at the recording sessions for the album “Astigmatic” in Warsaw in 1965. The memory of having heard this piece just popped up in my head. Komeda and I met at that time in Warsaw. Both of us were playing with our bands at the famous 'Jazz Jamboree' in the National Philharmonic Hall. He explained to me his recording plans for the following day. I was curious, and he invited me to listen in. For me, Komeda was even at that time one of the great visionaries of European jazz.”
Kühn's original compositions on “Beauty & Truth” captivate the listener with catchy melodies with the character of earworms, which serve as jumping-off points for his improvising adventures. There is “Because Of Mouloud”, which has become something of a Joachim Kühn hit. There is also “Transmitting”, a spacious tune which hovers, trance-like. “Machineria” is a punchy virtuosi Etude - fugal, up-tempo, in which the pianist's left and right hands become enmeshed. This album also presents Kühn as an interpreter of the music of The Doors. A reggae-dub track by Stand High Patrol, which Eric Schaefer brought to the studio, is also part of the trio's repertoire.
Kühn, it is clear, would not be Kühn (his surname in German, incidentally, means bold or brave) if he wasn't adding something original and personal to existing templates. By re-harmonising or re-casting the rhythm and the meter of a tune, he transforms it, with complete assurance, in to a Kühn original. A good example is “Sleep Safe And Warm,” the familiar melody from Roman Polanski's film “Rosemary's Baby”, which is first played straight, and is then cloaked in completely new harmonies.
It was inevitable that Ornette Coleman, who died in June 2015, and played exclusively with Kühn from 1996 to 2000, would also figure prominently. The title track “Beauty And Truth” is a miniature for solo piano. It serves as a prologue to the album, both setting its tone and defining its concept, which is to get straight to the essence of what each composition is about, to discover its intrinsic truth, and to elicit the authentic beauty from it.
It can quite clearly be heard quite how much this new trio has energized Kühn and spurred him on. The bass of Chris Jenkins is stentorian and self-assured, yet stoical. It underpins and anchors the band. Drummer Eric Schaefer brings the same multiple virtues to this different context that make him such a success as a stalwart of the Michael Wollny Trio: his exceptional taste and judgement, his power and richness of invention, and a beautifully attuned and instinctive balance between refinement and earthiness. “For the past ten years,” says Kühn, “in the trio with Majid Bekkas und Ramon López, I was looking for an African-influenced sound. Now I am coming back after several years to the classic piano trio. The trio with Jean-François Jenny-Clark and Daniel Humair was in existence for 30 years. That really was the trio of a lifetime. The depth and the intensity we found were incredible. In Eric and Chris I have found a new dream team. It is very inspiring to play with them, and to do very different things.”
In the twelve pieces on “Beauty & Truth” a different Joachim Kühn can be heard: his piano-playing is powerful and clear, and musically he has a way of going straight to the heart of the matter. He is always solidly grounded in the groove, he plays with unconfined joy and with buckets of soul too. As he always did.
Joachim Kühn, born 15 March 1944 in Leipzig, is one of the few global German jazz stars. His piano playing defies categorisation and has blazed new trails for contemporary jazz. The musical citizen of the world Kühn considers himself bound to the jazz tradition, linked to European concert music, but most of all dedicated to a sound that is now. He reveals vehemence and sensitivity, masterful technique and imagination, an unmistakable feel for his keyboard and an unfailing sense of dynamics. Whether in the interplay with long-standing musician partners, in ever changing and often extraordinarily challenging band constellations or alone in his solo gigs, Joachim Kühn succeeds in making music an event.
Kühn has been leaving his mark on the international jazz scene since the 60s. As a 22 year-old, he took part in an international competition for young jazz musicians, and decided not to return to socialist East Germany. Instead he launched a global career. That same year his first album came out on the renowned label Impulse, after playing at the Newport Jazz Festival in the USA.
Since then he has played in often challenging constellations with musicians from all over the world, with the most diverse of musical backgrounds. He worked with distinguished free jazz exponents like Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, and with musicians the likes of Billy Cobham, Eddie Gomez, Michael Brecker and Joe Henderson in the 70s fusion scene of the American west coast. Then he formed an internationally leading piano trio in the 80s in Paris with the bassist Jean-François Jenny-Clark and the drummer Daniel Humair.
Just two years after the founding of ACT, he was the focal point of an all-star band in 1994, with, for example, Alfred Mangelsdorff, Klaus Doldinger, Django Bates and the Hannover Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. The large-scale manifesto that arose of a Europe-based jazz music "Europeana" also reflects Kühn's musical influences: Although dedicated to a contemporary jazz sound, he has always felt a connection to European concert music as well.
The genre-crossing concept is especially apparent in his solo playing, which has always been important to Joachim Kühn – and to a degree the true challenge among jazz pianists. So it is that on the solo album "Allegro Vivace" released by ACT in 2005, his own pieces are accompanied by compositions from Bach and Mozart, Coltrane and Coleman. This merging of such musical contrasts again illustrates Joachim Kühn's risk affinity and talent for improvisation.
He shows his virtuosity in duets as well, always with an attentive ear for his partner so they can interact on an equal footing. His collaborations with the up-and-coming pianist Michael Wollny ("Piano Works IX: Live at Schloss Elmau", 2009), the grandmaster of sax Heinz Sauer ("If (Blue) Then (Blue)", 2010) and Archie Shepp ("Wo!man", 2010 on Archieball) were all highly praised by critics. The former was even named Album of the Year by the French jazz magazine Jazzman.
His openness and spirit of discovery led Kühn to put together a trio, the likes of which had never been seen before. In 2003 he found two kindred spirits with regard to the desire to improvise, in the Moroccan Majid Bekkas, who plays the lute instruments guembri and oud, and the Spanish percussionist Ramon Lopez. And they brought with them their own cultural backgrounds and musical experiences. Their first album "Kalimba" in 2007 was followed by "Out Of The Desert" (2009), which was recorded in a session in the northern African desert with local musicians, and by "Chalaba" in 2011.
Considering this abundance of musical pioneers, international collaborations, and his for German jazz unparalleled status, it came as no surprise when Joachim Kühn was honoured with the ECHO Jazz for lifetime achievement in 2011, together with his brother Rolf. The second ECHO Jazz followed one year later. The collaboration of his "desert jazz" trio with the hr big band, "Out of the Desert live at Jazzfest Berlin", was distinguished as the Best Big Band Production.
On "Voodoo Sense", the fifth album with Majid Bekkas and Ramon Lopez, Kühn's respect for tradition is audible. Already the nearly 20-minute opener "Kulu Se Mama" – recorded together with Archie Shepp, a group of African percussionists and vocalists led by talking-drum maestro Kouassi Bessan Joseph – refers back to the Coltrane album of the same name from 1965. Whether with archaic world-music, the blues-soaked saxophone ballad "L’eternal Voyage" written especially for Shepp, studies of pianistic harmonics such as "Crossing The Mirror" or thundering drama such as the final piece "Firehorse" – with a little help from his friends, Kühn has once again taken another step in his search for the magic of his very own music, the Voodoo Sense as it were.
When Joachim Kühn celebrates his 70th birthday on 15 March 2014, he can look back on an amazing career as a pianist. But he wouldn't be Joachim Kühn if he wasn't still making new plans for the future.
Joachim Kühn on ACT:
• „Voodoo Sense“ – with Majid Bekkas, Ramon Lopez, Archie Shepp a.o., 2013 (ACT 9555-2)
• „Out of the Desert live at Jazzfest Berlin“ – with hr-Bigband, 2011 (ACT 9521-2)
• „Chalaba“ – with Majid Bekkas & Ramon Lopez, 2011 (ACT 9502-2)
• „If (Blue) Then (Blue)“ – Duo with Heinz Sauer, 2010 (ACT 9493-2)
• „Out of the Desert“ – with Majid Bekkas & Ramon Lopez a.o., 2009 (ACT 9475-2)
• „Piano Works IX: Live at Schloss Elmau“ – Duo with Michael Wollny, 2009 (ACT 9758-2)
• „Kalimba“ – with Majid Bekkas & Ramon Lopez, 2007 (ACT 9456-2)
• „Piano Works I: Allegro Vivace“ – Solo Piano, 2005 (ACT 9750-2)
• „Europeana“ – with Radio Philharmonie Hannover NDR & Michael Gibbs, Django Bates a.o., 1995/2006 (ACT 9220-2/ACTSACD 9804-2)