As cautionary jazz biographies go, reedist Peter Kuhn’s ranks among the more tragic and ultimately redemptive. The specific realities of his story put a sobering spin on No Coming, No Going, a long overdue retrospective covering a slice of his early work as a leader. Kuhn scripts an accompanying booklet essay and it reads like a condensed confessional nearly on par with the likes of Art Pepper’s Straight Life and Hampton Hawes’ Raise Up Off of Me in the retelling of life highs and lows, the latter often instigated by the handicaps of a habitual addiction to heroin.
A California native originally inspired by Anthony Braxton and clarinetist Perry Robinson and later a fixture of the NYC loft scene of the late-1970s, Kuhn became fast friends with Lower East side peers like Frank Lowe, Billy Bang and Arthur Williams. That last man is an integral element to Livin’ Right, Kuhn’s debut LP and the contents of the set’s first disc released for the first time in unedited form. The irony of the album title isn’t lost on Kuhn either who recounts his struggles to hew the straight and narrow with interspersed anecdotes regarding the vibrant musical communities of which he was a part.
Broadcast and recorded at Columbia University’s radio station in December of 1978, the performance documents a formidable quintet with Williams and Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo parsed into separate stereo channels, but still easy to tell apart. Bassist William Parker and drummer Denis Charles complete the band and Kuhn handles composerly duties although the pieces also remain open to free improvisation. Working off and between the brass, Kuhn’s clarinets convey a convincing fire music ethos with Parker and Charles stoking further galvanizing flames. A second set from the same concert is also now available under Williams’ name as an LP-only release from No Business.
The package’s second disc presents a previously unreleased duo recital by Kuhn and Charles recorded the following year at the New England Repertory Theater. Two lengthy improvisations follow a pair of Kuhn compositions. Both men are in fine form and very well recorded with Kuhn moving between clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone with near equal facility. His opening melodic variations on “Stigma” reference Robinson in passing, jousting with Charles’ tumultuous rolls and cymbal strikes through a repeating motif that almost sounds like it could come from an errant page of the Steve Lacy songbook.
Charles frequently comes across like a free jazz cousin to Art Blakey, building his solos in loose episodic blocks, ripe to bursting with rhythmic energy, that fold African and Caribbean elements onto a sturdy foundation of ironclad jazz licks. His precision press rolls in particular bear the stamp of the elder drummer and he deploys them as a reliable means of accelerating the kinetic drama. Kuhn responds in kind, focusing on dynamics in his phrasing and inflections and only rarely playing a line straight. The results are a reciprocal conversation that keeps interest for the better part of an hour without resorting to cliché or convention.
Kuhn spent years in the figurative wilderness prior to getting his shit together and it came at the cost of music and eventually his health. Nearly three decades evaporated before he found his way back to the former through the encouragement of friends, a career resurrection of sorts, but one completed wholly on his own terms. A release by his current trio completes the timely trifecta by No Business in returning Kuhn’s name to the spotlight for free jazz listeners. Grounded in the personal products of an artist who followed his embattled muse even when hanging from the lowest rung of life’s ladder, it’s renewed attention well-deserved.
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