I probably haven't seen or heard Kevin Hunt play for a number of years. He used to play reasonably often, as I recall, in various formats and guises, as is his peripatetic wont, at Woodfire, a Hungarian restaurant and jazz room masquerading as a pizza joint, run by the irrepressible Peter Molnar. Ironically and unhappily, that venue burnt to the ground quite a while ago now. I'd fond recollections of Kevin duelling with Simon Tedeschi, or accompanying veteran vocalist Marie Wilson, or just banging out Gershwin. (Of course, when I say banging out, note the tongue firmly planted in the cheek, for KH is one of jazz' finest living pianists. Does jazz even have pianists? No, I think it only has piano players.)

So I was delighted when Mark Ginsburg, one of jazz' most interesting, enterprising and innovative saxophonists (and, like his mentor and teacher, Kevin, composers), informed me The Kevin Hunt Trio would be playing VJs, one of the north shore's best-kept secrets. VJs hides away behind North Shore Temple Emmanuel, in one of Chatswood's quieter streets, albeit just off the main drag of Archer. Much of the time, it serves as a function venue but, several times a year, Mark and his loyal, enthusiastic team arrange it such that it has a congenial ambience and excellent sound. What else does one need? Well, a band like The KHT to play there. Grab a glass of red, a handful of nuts and a wedge of brie and you're away.

It's fitting Kevin should be playing behind a synagogue: his very first piano tutor might've been his father, Ellis, but he was soon learning from Chuck Yates, John Speight and David Levy. From there, it was onto the Con, under the tutelage of Burrows, (Judy) Bailey, Paul McNamara, (the late and sorely missed) Roger Frampton, George Golla, Miroslav Bukovsky and Dick Montz. A good start, to employ classic understatement.

Kevin has one of those pleasant (there's really no better word for it), ever-smiling faces that says 'I don't have a bad bone in my body'. Perhaps it's the joy he spoke of, in music, that has that effect. He projects this energy through his playing, but also in the elucidations he makes about the music he plays, whether his own (though, one way or another, he makes it all his own) or others'. He feigns shyness and vagueness, but his knowledge of music history is clearly encyclopedic; he ain't foolin' noone.

Given that he's been on the Sydney scene since 1979 (he was reminiscing about Red Ned's) and his prodigious talent, he's worked with a veritable who's who; spanning generations, what's more. The aforementioned; Don Burrows; James Morrison; Gordon Rytmeister; Tim Hopkins; David Jones; et al. His trio, for a few years now, has included Dave Goodman and Karl Dunnicliff.  

Few musicians remain at the cutting or leading edge for thirty years or more, but KH has. This, because of his bravery. Bravery? Yes. For him, all music is fair game: whether it be Bach, or Ravel; Vernon Duke, or The Duke; Chick Corea, or Burton Lane. Currently, he's engaged in a project called Ancient & New, based on Aboriginal chants of the Sydney region. Yes. Not only engaging, but engaged.

Hunt began with his own composition, launching straight into it unannounced. The Joy of Spring is inspired by master trumpeter and bebopper (who some reckon was an even better player than Miles, by dint of his clean, rich sound) Clifford Brown's 1954 number Joy Spring, an easy-swinging number with one of the most memorable melodic motifs in jazz. Hunt's homage is more than distinguished: it shows him to be a composer capable of placing himself, in the long run, in the major league; after all, he studied with Joe Zawinul, in Vienna and, just as Brown's Joy Spring (a tribute to his wife, who he referred to as such) has become part of the jazz firmament, the sophistication of Hunt's writing leaves me with the sneaking suspicion his tunes will be played long after he leaves the building. An interesting, historically synchronistic sidelight is that Brown was introduced to the love of his short life by Max Roach, with whom, among other things, he recorded the legendary album, Clifford Brown & Max Roach, from whence this standard derives. The future Mrs Brown was working on a thesis to prove the superiority of classical over jazz music, a proposition from which CB was able to dissuade her. Interesting and synchronistic, in that KH, rather than indulging such meaningless debates, is in the business of melding both, without fear, favour, or pretension.    

Of course, KH is as good an arranger as composer. He's famous for his adaptations of classics and the first movement of Ravel's Nobles et Sentimentales is, well, a classic example. It's also an outstanding opportunity to glean a glimpse of his virtuosic pianistic talent, since this work is so very challenging. To me, it seems like Ravel and Hunt, in their eclecticism, might've been fast friends, were they contemporaries. This work of Ravel's had scant regard for distinctions between the atmospherics of impressionist and the linguistic plurality of modernist music: he managed to jump from ship to ship without ever appearing in the manifest of any musical vessel. Like mischievous Maurice, Hunt is also a veritable Peter Pan, mercurially shifting gears, grappling with Ravel's complexities as if child's play and with the self-same unbridled enthusiasm a child brings to play.     

All kinds of people have covered Guy Wood's My One and Only Love: from Sinatra (the original recording) to Sting. Written in '52, with lyrics by Robert Mellin, it couldn't present more of a contrast to the innovations of Ravel, being a stock-standard, 32-bar ballad. Nonetheless, it presents as challenging (and beautiful) a melody for a singer as Ravel's noble and sentimental waltz does for a piano player. Hunt clearly loves the song, since he imbues it with such tenderness. In introducing it, he even pointed to the poetry of the opening line: 'the very thought of you makes my heart sing, like an April breeze, on the wings of spring', which must surely make it one of the greatest-ever love songs.     

Dance of the Infidels was written by (Earl Rudolph) 'Bud' Powell, one of the least credited inventors of bop and one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. Powell, who became known as the Charlie Parker of piano (not least because he took to emulating Bird's sax), followed closely in the footsteps of two other colossal keysmen, in (Thelonius Sphere) Monk and Art Tatum. In fact, Monk reckoned none could play like Bud. KH continues the line. Just as I see, or hear, a parallel between Ravel and Hunt, I'd argue to bring Powell into this same tent. He was classically-trained and this was almost certainly a strong indicator for the harmonic sophistication he brought to his music. Given KH's penchant for classical refinement and the influence that brings to bear on his writing, arranging and playing, it's as if Ravel, Powell and Hunt, had they been contemporaries, might've been a kind of musical Marx Brothers. Monk said of Powell, 'too difficult, too quick; incredible!' and, watching Hunt play, similar thoughts spring to mind.

Like the company I'd put him in, KH is very much an innovator. It's particularly manifest in his playing: he seems to be experimenting with different techniques, to different sonic ends. At times his arms and hands arch over the keyboard; at others the heels of his hands appear to be resting or pushing against its leading edge, or the keys hit with the heels, or palms, obliquely, to eke out some subtle harmonics. Perhaps all of this is related to his PhD study of the Stuart piano and its jazz capabilities.     
His own No Shuffle was, for mine, possible the most satisfying piece of the evening, with a melodic hook that invites improvisation around it, in the self-same way as an of the great and immortal jazz standards. I don't know what inspired the title: perhaps an aversion to New Orleans rhythms (I sincerely doubt it) or, more likely, an allergy to the capriciousness of the digital device.

Hot House is another 'top of the bops', courtesy Tadd Dameron, made famous by Dizzy and Bird. If it sounds familiar, it's because it has exactly the same harmonic structure as Cole Porter's 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'; but you'll probably be a dinkum aficionado to pick it. Hunt and company give it all the momentum (and possibly more) Dick Hyman (piano), Sandy Block (bass) and Charlie Smith (drums) did.

Little Rootie Tootie is a Monk tune, named after his then two-year-old son, Thelonius, Jr. (as you do), nicknamed Toot, after Little Toot The Tugboat, an early Disney cartoon much favoured by the T the younger. being his father's son, Toot learned to whistle the tune before he could talk. Of course, the tune very obviously draws on the classic blues and jazz motif of a locomotive, too. A personal favourite (for its confounding equivocation between consonant and dissonant melodic phrases, as well as its rhythmic changes) of mine and, presumably, Hunt's, it was ripe for emulation and homage, since we had a prodigious trio standing in for a prodigious trio. Goodman is every bit as busily, conscientiously inventive as Art Blakey (the drummer in Monk's trio) and Dunnicliff's clean, tight upright bass sound is very much in keeping with Gary Mapp's. Better yet, it's the boundary-riding, envelope-pushing attitude they bring to the tune that is most synchronous of all with 'the Monkeys'.  

Vernon Duke's Autumn In New York predates Monk's troika by a couple of decades, written for the Broadway musical, 'Thumbs Up!', that's proved an enduring selection for countless jazz musos and vocalists: Bird's done it; Louie and Ella have sung it; Billie Holiday; Sinatra; Sarah Vaughan; Stan Kenton; Mingus; Oscar Peterson; Harry Connick, Jr.; Mel Torme; Grapelli; need I go on? Hunt and co seem to bring a palpable feeling and affection for New York to the fore in their reading of what is, when all's said and done, an ode to that great city.
On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever) was written by Burton Lane as the title song for his recently-revived musical, which first hit the stage in '65. Hunt introduces it by obliquely espousing his contagious positivity, as is his wont. He's right, of course: how can one look at one's glass and see it half-empty, on a clear day? And the way the trio plays would have us all rise and look around, shining light into the dark corners of our lives.  

David Mann, a Brill building songsmith, is probably better known for Sinatra's real-life breakup (with Ava Gardner) song, In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning, but No Moon At All, at least to those in the know, still stands as one of the most treasured standards. Julie London arguably recorded one of the best sung versions and the Brad Meldhau Trio does an especially sensitive, heartfelt, but still bluesy and swinging rendition. The KHT gives it a makeover that rates, also capturing the upbeat, driving inclination of the number, that leans keenly into the rhythm, but not without being awake to the darker colour of the lyric, in which 'stars have disappeared from sight'. It's a seasoned rendition, informed by what has gone before, but creating something almost entirely new from that musical and emotional intelligence.  

Folk Melody is Hunt's own and a traditional closer for the trio. It could easily be a memorable and affecting theme for a major cinematic tearjerker. Which isn't to say it lacks sophistication. Au contraire! In fact, it's the very quintessence of compositional sophistication: a deceptively straightforward central theme, Celtic in flavour, around which KH builds endless variations, changes and interpolations, including classically-influenced ones. A sweet piece of music, in every respect, and one that's emblematic of KH's genre-jumping audacity which, in some ways at least, puts me in mind of Gershwin or Bacharach, since all three have managed to confound expectations, challenging and defying critics, as well as popular taste, in the most transcendent, future-prone way, with utter independence of talent and spirit.

Kevin Hunt on his own is a jaw-dropping live experience, but teamed with the rock-steady Karl Dunnicliff (who may've started out listening to AC/DC, but now owes more to the cool groove of, say, Ray Brown) and finessed Dave Goodman, each adventurous soloists in their own right, the KHT becomes an entity of exceptionality; an Australian jazz jewel.     

Review Courtesy Lloyd Bradford Syke