A major force in the Los Angeles jazz community since the late 1990s, pianist-composer George Kahn recently released his sixth CD, Cover Up! Made available through his Playing Records label, Cover Up! features Kahn's trio with bassist Brian Bromberg and drummer Alex Acuna, plus occasional guests. The brilliant lineup of players interprets four catchy originals as well as some surprising , recognizable rock tunes that are transformed into jazz.
“People always respond to songs they know,” says George Kahn. “Thinking about it, I realized that I'd always wanted to create jazz versions of tunes that one does not normally hear in a jazz setting. Rather than perform ‘Stella By Starlight' or ‘Autumn Leaves' yet again, I thought it would be fun to play songs that I liked while I was growing up, usually from the late 1960s and early ‘70s and some newer tunes. I settled on songs by Cream, Pink Floyd, Bill Withers and John Mayer along with the Beatles.”
Rather than performing watered-down versions of pop tunes, Kahn created arrangements that reinvented the songs as swinging and hip jazz. “‘Sunshine Of Your Love' was difficult initially, but when I played it in the studio with Brian Bromberg and Alex Acuna, it really jelled. ‘Comfortably Numb' has a very open and interesting chord progression that allows it to work very well as a ballad. The first time I heard ‘Waiting On The World To Change,' I loved the song and realized that it was really a gospel tune although John Mayer does not play it like that. We slowed it down, added a couple of chord changes and there it was.” Also quite unusual is the meshing together of the Beatles' “Yesterday” and Jerome Kern's “Yesterdays.” Rather than play it as a conventional medley, the two songs are combined in a way that keeps listeners guessing as to which song is which.
George Kahn has been playing with Brian Bromberg and Alex Acuna on an occasional basis since they met in 2004 and they formed the nucleus of his previous CD “…Compared To What?“ There is clearly a strong chemistry between the three of us. When I thought about doing a new album, they were the first musicians I thought of. I love playing with them, and the groove we get is so natural and infectious.” Tenor-saxophonist Justo Almario and trumpeter John Fumo, who are on four selections apiece, are old friends while the versatile guitarist Pat Kelley adds a great deal to the music on two cuts. Bill Withers' “Use Me” features the young singer Courtney Lemmon. “My wife is a vocal teacher and Courtney was one of her students when she was attending Santa Monica High School around eight years ago, She was also our babysitter at one time and had a great voice even then. She sang a song on my previous CD, studied at the New School in New York, moved back to the Los Angeles area a year ago, and was a natural to feature on the Bill Withers song.”
George Kahn grew up in New Rochelle, New York, studying classical music from the age of nine. He began composing while in high school and was always interested in improvisational music, studying the music of Charles Ives, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen as a Composition Major at Brandeis University. He did not start to explore jazz until his last years at Brandeis, being particularly affected by John Coltrane's Kulu Se Mama, which opened his mind towards what was possible in music. After graduating, he lived on Cape Cod for a couple of years, did some gigs in Boston, toured the East Coast with a disco band and eventually moved to California in 1976.
“I decided that it was time to stop saying I was a musician and actually be one.” Kahn worked in an improvising New Age group for a few years, studied arranging with Spud Murphy, and performed in a variety of settings. In the latter half of the 1990s he made his move, forming the Playing Music label and Sudhana Music Publishing. Since then he has released six CDs.
“Each of my albums features a wide range of styles which are tied together by my compositional and playing style. For my debut Out of Time, I decided to shoot high and get my dream drummer, Billy Higgins. After I talked him into working on the project, he recommended bassist Richard Reid. Everything fell into place after I got Billy. I was surprised to find out that he did not read music. But by the second run through, he had every song down. That guy had the biggest ears in the world, he was just phenomenal.”
Next out was Conscious Dreams, an un-issued recording from 1985 that is more in the New Age vein, featuring George Kahn on all of the instruments. Freedom Vessel mostly has Kahn in a trio with the late bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Joe LaBarbera, plus guest spots for altoist Eric Marienthal and Bobby Rodriguez. The emphasis is on the pianist's infectious originals. Midnight Brew uses Kahn's working trio of the time (with bassist Karl Vincent and drummer M.B. Gordy) as the nucleus behind such all-stars as Marienthal, Justo Almario, guitarist Larry Koonse, trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez and singer Tierney Sutton. The Kahn-Bromberg-Acuna trio appears for the first time on …Compared To What?, assisted by Almario, Marienthal, John Fumo and guitarist Ira Ingber.
“Naturally I like to think that each CD is stronger than the previous one,” says the pianist. “It is like having building blocks, with each new project building on the ones of the past. One of Keith Jarrett's focuses is to be riff free, not constantly playing the riffs and phrases that you already know and instead concentrate on flowing improvisation. That is my aim in my playing.”
George Kahn, who performs frequently in the Los Angeles area, including an annual Jazz For The Homeless fundraiser for the charity PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) and benefits for public school music programs, looks forward to touring again in the near future. “My main goal is to share my music with as many people as possible. I believe that there is a great deal of life in West Coast Jazz. It is not only viable but has the opportunity and ability to broaden its base. I purposely picked out songs that might get a John Mayer fan who has never heard a jazz album, to possibly explore this CD because they know some of the songs. I hope that Cover Up! will give more people a door into this wonderful music.”
Both accessible and consistently creative, “Cover Up!” is George Kahn's finest recording to date, containing music that is difficult to resist.