Steve Kuhn Wisteria (ECM)

There are many measured moments on Steve Kuhn’s new trio disc. The 74-year-old pianist isn’t known for flaunting expressionism or dedicating himself to experimentation – unless expressionistic moves are deeply lyrical and inventing phrase after phrase after phrase is an experimental tack. I’ll stop the facetiousness; we know both notions to be true, and Kuhn, who brings a modern bop lingo with him everywhere he goes, has skills in both approaches. This date with electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Joey Baron is memorable because each musician has a singular sound, so the group’s collective demeanor is singular as well. While they don’t always mesh, they don’t always mesh in truly fascinating ways, ways draw you into the music. How cool is that?

When they do fully connect, which is often, it’s in a variety of dynamics. “A Likely Story” (the track that would kick off side two if Wisteria were a vinyl album) is smoker, a piece that refutes that “measured” comment above. The crackling hard bop that Kuhn brought to Coltrane’s post-Giant Steps working band is front and center here. With Baron conjuring Tony Williams and Swallow proving how waxing nimble can mean waxing provocative, the ensemble invests in exclamation. But Wisteria is ultimately about variety, and the glide that arrives on “Pastorale” as well as the reflection that defines the title cut (a gorgeous tune written by another of the pianist’s employers from over a half-century ago, Art Farmer) remind that Kuhn is an expert at scripting a program. Sometimes plush, sometimes spartan, this is an album that shifts just often enough to keep you turning your head.

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