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Joachim Kühn

If there is a single quality that defines the career of German pianist, composer, producer, and painter Joachim Kühn, it is curiosity. His style crisscrosses classical music, avant-jazz, post-bop, modern composition, stride blues, free improvisation, global folk traditions, and even rock. His mercurial approach balances vehemence and sensitivity, imagination, and a fluid sense of dynamics. Kühn left formal classical studies to follow his older brother, clarinetist Rolf Kühn, into jazz. They cut Impressions of New York in 1968, and the following year combined avant-jazz and psychedelic rock on Bloody Rockers. Joachim issued Bold Music in 1969. Between 1976 and 1980 he cut four jazz fusion records for Atlantic including Springfever and issued the now-classic Hip Elegy for MPS. During the 1980s, Kuhn released the trio outing Easy to Read, debuting his long-standing trio with drummer Daniel Humair and bassist Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark. In 1990 he issued the classic solo outing Dynamics. In 1997, Colors: Live from Leipzig -- in duo with Ornette Coleman -- appeared from Verve. 2005's Piano Works I: Allegro Vivace was released by ACT, as was 2009's acclaimed Out of the Desert. He issued Wo! Man in duo with Archie Shepp in 2011, and in 2019 released Melodic Ornette Coleman: Piano Works XIII. The solo outing Touch the Light appeared in 2021. Kühn was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1944, 100 miles south of Berlin. He began playing piano at five and was considered a prodigy. He undertook classical training on piano and alto saxophone for more than a decade. Relentlessly curious, he developed an interest in jazz from older brother, clarinetist Rolf Kühn. In 1963, two years after the Berlin Wall made him a resident of the GDR, he made his first recording as a jazz pianist on the Werner Pfüller Quintett's single "Sack O' Woe" b/w "Grog." The following year, leading his own trio, he presented the first free jazz concert in the GDR. In 1965, the CBS release Reunion in Berlin, was billed to the Rolf & Joachim Kühn Quartet. It included a program of six original compositions split between the pair; they also cut Solarius as the Rolf Kühn Quintett for Amiga. (It featured the young Polish violinist Michael Urbaniak as a soloist.) Kühn left the GDR in 1966 and settled in Hamburg. That year, he played the Newport Jazz Festival with Rolf. In 1967 the Rolf + Joachim Kühn Quintet with guest Karl Berger on vibes released Transfiguration on Saba. Joachim emigrated to Paris late that year. In 1968 he made his foray into jazz-rock as part of Barney Wilen & His Amazing Free Rock Band for Dear Prof. Leary on MPS. (Drummer and future collaborator Aldo Romano was also part of the lineup). The Kühn Brothers issued Impressions of New York for Impulse!, featuring Romano and bassist Jimmy Garrison. 1969 was as prolific as it was adventurous. For starters, he and Rolf released The Kühn Brothers & Mad Rockers on Metronome. The band included guitarist Volker Kriegel, drummer Stu Martin, and bassist Gunter Lenz; they followed two months later with Bloody Rockers for BYG, billed to Joachim and Rolf Kühn. While the former offered rock structures with free improvisation, the latter was a mirrored release that juxtaposed modal and vanguard jazz with beat-driven psychedelia. They also released Monday Morning, an avant-jazz date with Barre Phillips, John Surman, and trombonist Eje Thelin. That same year, under his own name, Joachim released Bold Music for MPS and Sound of Feelings for BYG. He also played a key role on Michel Portal's classic Our Meanings and Our Feelings, Don Cherry's Eternal Rhythm, and The Fabulous Slide Hampton Quartet. In 1970, the pianist released Paris Is Beautiful for BYG and Solos in 1971. He also was part of the Rolf Kühn Jazzgroup on the albums Going to the Rainbow and Devil in Paradise. In 1972 he joined Jean-Luc Ponty's studio and road bands and released the trio date Interchange and Piano Solo for MPS. Kühn also performed in Anthony Braxton's Creative Music Orchestra (the sessions appeared in 1977 as the triple-LP RBN----3° K12). In 1973, Kühn rejoined Kriegel after replacing keyboardist Jasper Van't Hof in the jazz-rock outfit Association P.C. for Rock Around the Cock, and 1974's live Mama Kuku in collaboration with flutist Jeremy Steig. Kühn also took part in the recording sessions for Altissimo with Gary Bartz, Lee Konitz, Jackie McLean and Charlie Mariano. 1974 saw the release of the jazz-funk outing Cinemascope on MPS. Produced by Rolf and engineered by Conny Plank, it showcased a knotty electric quartet with drummer Gerry Brown, bassist John Lee, and guitarist Toto Blanke. Over the next two years, Kühn booked work as a sideman and collaborator. He re-emerged as a leader on 1976's jazz-fusion classic Hip Elegy. Lee remained as bassist, but Alphonse Mouzon claimed the drum chair, alongside guitarist Philip Catherine, trumpeter Terumasa Hino, and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. Kühn signed to Atlantic for 1977's solo piano outing Charisma, and dove deep into fusion, playing on records by Billy Cobham, Alphonse Mouzon, Larry Coryell, Zbigniew Siefert, and Jan Akkerman. In 1979 he released the jazz-funk and R&B outing Don't Stop Me Now for Atlantic; it was billed to the J. Kühn Band. He kicked off the '80s with the solo piano outing Snow in the Desert, followed in 1983 by his CMP debut I'm Not Dreaming. Its lineup included percussionist Mark Nauseef and trombonist George Lewis. 1985 saw the release of Easy to Read, the debut by Kühn's most famous collaborative trio with bassist Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark and drummer Daniel Humair. They issued several dates over the next couple of years, each billed to a different member. (Humair also inspired Kühn to start painting by taking him to outsider art exhibits in galleries and museums -- the pianist now exhibits his work all over the world.) In 1987, Kühn issued the solo synth/piano album Time Exposure on Entente and a year later, Dark, in collaboration with composer/violinist Walter Quintus. In 1988, the Humair and Jenny-Clark trio issued the live 9-11 P.M. Town Hall, accompanied by guests Martial Solal, Marc Ducret, and Portal, and the following year Live: Théâtre De La Ville, Paris, 1989 as a trio. Kühn also registered as a sideman on Just Friends by Helen Merrill and Stan Getz. In 1991, the pianist released Get Up Early, his second collaboration with Quintus, and Signed By, a duo outing with saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi. He also played on Eartha Kitt's Thinking Jazz, Harry Beckett's Passion and Possession, and with his brother's trio on As Time Goes By. He remained in Kitt's band for 1992's Something May Go Wrong, and cut the Euro African Suite in duo with Congolese pianist/guitarist Ray Lema. Kühn's trio also released Carambolage from their live collaboration with the WDR Big Band, and a studio date entitled Usual Confusion. In 1994, Kühn released the solo Plays Lili Marlene, a collection of standards, and the vanguard solo improv set United Nations. He also made the move to Ibiza where he continues to reside. The following year he led a trio with Jenny-Clark and drummer Jon Christensen in collaboration with Mike Gibbs and the Radio Philharmoníe Hannover NDR on Europeana: Jazzphony No. 1. Two successive solo piano outings, Famous Melodies and Abstracts in 1995 and 1996, followed. In 1996, Kühn and Rolf released Brothers for Intuition, and the pianist performed and played an improvised concert with Ornette Coleman -- he is one of the very few pianists ever to perform or record with the saxophonist. The concert was released the following year by Verve as Colors: Live from Leipzig. The pianist had spent many hours in Coleman's New York apartment over the years, improvising and taping. He was inspired by the saxophonist's systemic harmolodic theory, and Coleman encouraged him to develop his own. In 2000 Kühn released Diminished Augmented System, a solo album of his own and Coleman's compositions for Emarcy, showcasing his systemic strategy. He followed it with 2001's Universal Time, leading a pair of quartets with bassist Scott Colley, drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, and saxophonists Portal and Chris Potter -- the pianist also played alto on the date. In 2002, Kühn released Bach Now! in collaboration with the Thomanerchor Leipzig, a boys' choir founded in 1212 by Johann Sebastian Bach himself. After the release of Love Stories with Rolf in 2005, he issued Piano Works I: Allegro Vivace, and collaborated on a pair of trio outings: Journey to the Center of an Egg with Rabih Abou-Khalil and Jarrod Cagwin, and Poison with Jean-Paul Cela and Wolfgang Reisinger. The following year he released Kalimba with Majid Bekkas and Ramon Lopez, and followed it in 2008 with Out of the Desert and in 2010 with Chalaba. In 2011, Kühn and saxophonist Archie Shepp released the duo outing Wo! Man on the tenor's Archieball label; it was followed by the solo piano offering Free Ibiza. 2012 saw the issue of Lifeline in a quartet with Rolf, Brian Blade, and John Patitucci on Boutique. In 2011 and 2012, the pianist embarked on a series of intermittently scheduled recording sessions in Morocco and Paris with Bekkas, Lopez, Shepp, and a handpicked group of young North African musicians. The end result, Voodoo Sense, was released by ACT in 2013 to global acclaim. After the label released 2014's Moscow, a live duo with saxophonist Alexey Kruglov, they issued Beauty and Truth a couple of months later, marking the debut of Joachim Kühn New Trio with bassist Chris Jennings and drummer Eric Schaefer. The group followed it with 2017's charting Love & Peace. In 2018, Kühn released the celebrated Melodic Ornette Coleman: Piano Works XIII. 2020 saw the release of Speaking Sound in duo with violinist Mateusz Smoczyński, followed a year later by the solo piano outing Touch the Light.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo
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