Emily Kuhn’s new album ‘Ghosts of Us’, out now via the consistently impressive BACE Records, may have been written during the cloying pall of pandemic times but it represents an artist emerging with regenerated focus. Not that the Chicago based jazz trumpeter and composer’s 2020 debut ‘Sky Stories’ lacked vitality or purpose. It captured Kuhn’s emerging strength as a writer and player in an exquisitely realised whirl of latin-toned jazz with classical, folk and world sensibilities but ‘Ghosts of Us’ just feels a bit more cohesive and emotionally direct. You sense that where her debut had impact, Kuhn’s sophomore release is likely to stamp a deeper imprint.
Such an artistic step on could link back to COVID’s world-on-pause mode that ironically gifted Kuhn time to reflect and write with less of life’s usual interruptions. There’s certainly a strong narrative flow weaving through the new album’s tunes around the loss, hope and connectivity. Also the coherence and collective spirit of ‘Ghosts of Us’ seems underpinned by her gathering a tight band around her. Whereas ‘Sky Stories’ revolved around both her chamber jazz ensemble Helios and improv. quartet with fellow trumpet player Joe Suihkonen, this time around Kuhn prunes things back to an intuitively communicative quintet featuring: Erik Skov on guitar; pianist Meghan Stagl; Kitt Lyles on bass; and drummer Gustavo Cortiñas. The new band are no strangers to each other either, all contribute to the Chicago jazz eco-system and their paths cross in other bands, Cortiñas plays in Helios as well as with Skov in Kind Regards and Liminality which also involves Lyles etc.etc.
So in many ways ‘Ghosts in Us’ captures these musical relationships developing and new ones being formed, all within the context of Kuhn’s lucid, lively compositions. No wonder the result is an album that’s so buoyant and brimming with personality. A marker of such expressive distinction is laid down from the get-go with the title track opener. First sketched after a walk that Kuhn took in the empty Chicago streets during lockdown, Ghosts of Us echoes that muted glide along the sidewalks, the drums tip-toeing a furtive skittering rhythm as eerie angular chords descend in a tense, look over your shoulder intro. It’s a visceral, atmospheric tune that builds descriptively from Kuhn’s mournful dampened trumpet line to the rising hope of Stagl’s shimmering piano runs.
From these first moments you sense that this is a group of musicians playing together with an assured confidence and trust in each other. It takes some chutzpah to follow the opening ballad with a cut of similar dynamics but Kuhn’s quintet have such an astute feel and eye for detail that their music rarely underwhelms. Consequently Respire may follow a similar mid-tempo jurisdiction but the thrill remains. From the Kuhn’s graphic early morning yawn to the ringing post-rock gravity of Eric Skov’s electric (with a hint of Coryell thrown in), the song lifts to a dramatic crescendo amidst the cymbal crashes before scaling down to a twinkling calm. “And Breathe” as the saying goes.
Elsewhere tempo tombola gets played but without ever seeming to obligingly go through the motions. When It Rains delights in a playful and relatively straight pure bop swing, the players relishing the reference points that they touch and trading breaks with a refreshing shared respect. Less predictable but perhaps more intriguing is the shadowy, hovering In Lieu Of Certainty, Movement. Kuhn again takes the lead in defining the hook line but from there the momentum dances and pivots. Nu jazz urgency and broken beat sections keep you on your toes while Meghan Stagl’s piano solo responds with some wild invention, taking in neo classical trills and Fonseca flourishes along the way. Most impressive on early listens is the sultry blues (and more) of When The World Is Young that highlights the pneumatic pulse of Kitt Lyle’s bass playing in a solo that muses and moans almost vocally and Kuhn’s lyrical voicing which is simply pure heart. Plus the subtle slide from Erik Skov’s resonant flamenco tinged prologue into the main tune’s sway is absolute, must hear that again magic.
For an album whose strengths lay in its understatement and calm persuasion, it’s fitting that ‘Ghosts of Us’ resolves with the gently uplifting warmth of Home. There’s a folky twang to Kuhn’s exquisitely drawn melody as the song ambles through its well measured paces. As it builds with a blues rolling piano and climactic sonorous toms, Kuhn seems to coax even higher emotions from her instrument for an ending that wells up with a beautiful inevitability.
This new album showcases Kuhn as a fine instrumentalist with a Marsalis sense of melodic clarity and a Chet-like feel for timbre, plus it confirms that she is a composer with that similar flare that first brought Laura Jurd into the spotlight. To some the work may appear orthodox but there’s a confidence and believe in her own uncluttered approach that in today’s often overcooked climate is singularly refreshing. ‘Ghosts of Us’ sees Emily Kuhn making a real statement and its release deserves to nudge her closer to her contemporaries.
Get your copy of ‘Ghosts of Us’ by Emily Kuhn direct from BACE Records HERE