The lineup on Promises Kept says it all: Steve Kuhn with strings. Kuhn is a jazz pianist whose recordings may have been out of the jazz mainstream for most of the five decades his career has spanned, but it hardly matters. Kuhn's style is signature, though his explorations have taken him to many different terrains in the world of jazz, from knotty post-bop to pointillism and modalism and through the nefarious world of 20th century vanguard composition to the place where listeners find him now: the place of a supreme and unabashed lyricism that is as sophisticated and forward-looking as it is historical and inclusive. Bassist David Finck is also present here; his trademark loping style has been a fixture on Kuhn's recordings since 1986. Conducted and orchestrated by Carlos Franzetti, this 15-piece string orchestra offers a lush yet poignant collaborative sphere for Kuhn to work his considerable harmonic magic. Kuhn composed all ten pieces. Some are well-known items in his oeuvre; others were written specifically for this recording. They vary in range, mood, texture, and depth of field. The album opens with "Lullaby," its sheer nocturnal elegance kissed by quiet joy. The bittersweet emotionalism of his classic "Life's Backward Glance" becomes a credo for the entire album. Beginning with a series of brooding washes by the cellos and tempered by a pastoral reflective series of chords and ostinatos, it becomes the haunted song of reverie as tempered by a sense of the fleeting present. "Trance" offers an elongated string introduction, whereby the feeling of time's suspension pervades in the violas and cellos until the repetitive, songlike melody line slips into the middle between them and the violins caress the entire mix. Here romanticism and jazz entwine in the body of Kuhn's harmonic structures, shimmering through a luxuriant mirror of musical history. And the title track, an homage to Kuhn's Hungarian immigrant parents, waltzes and glides between Old Europe and a far more romantic vision of America than exists today. It is formal and carries within it a wistful kind of romanticism that is seldom heard in modern music. In sum, this is one of the finest recordings Kuhn has ever issued. Simply put, for all the decades spent adventuring on the boundaries where various traditions blur, the pianist and composer articulate direct emotion as the most effective communicator here, no matter what terrain is navigated in form. A breathtaking and intimate outing, this is a career-topping effort.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek