Album Review: Emily Kuhn – Sky Stories

New jazz… Chicago… must be another International Anthem release right? Well no, this is something from outside that powerhouse, the debut by Emily Kuhn, trumpet player out now on the BACE records. As a label BACE has been steadily releasing music from the jazz-tinged, electronic, experimental, post-rock whirlpool for a couple of years now and Kuhn’s ‘Sky Stories’ confidently adds to the catalogue’s flow.

The source of this new record’s strength is the range and variety she brings not just as a player but as a composer and arranger. There are strong Latin Jazz overtones but also classical, folk and world sensibilities feeding into ‘Sky Stories’. It’s a celebration of place, not only in terms of the city’s music but also its raw environmental beauty within and beyond the streets.

The record revolves around two bands that Emily Kuhn leads, the chamber jazz nine piece Helios and her improv. quartet Kuhn/Suihkonen/Friedman/Ernst. So there is plenty of warmth, trust and intuition pushing the grooves along. ‘Roses’ and ‘Horizon’, track one and two respectively on the album, map out where the relationship between the two ensembles will take us. Helios feature on the opener, exploring the possibilities of the string quartet infused jazz combo to full effect. From its pensive introduction ‘ Roses’ opens out from the moment the horns, strings and striking group vocals swell around Mercedes Inez Martinez sultry lead voice. Then we are off into a tight expansive bossa that gradually winds down with some dizzy scat and a suitably smooth fade.

The quartet driven ‘Horizon’ then jumps in, swapping the lush complexity of the opener for bouncing bass and drum foundations with stunning twin trumpet interplay, from Kuhn and Joe Suihkonen. It’s a free- wheeling companion to the album opener, a balance that is impressively maintained as ‘Sky Stories’ unravels.

Elsewhere on the record the Kuhn quartet acrobatically tumble through the energetic Ornette injected ‘Fit’ and up the tension on ‘Anthem’ where the trumpet lines clamber to their summit over a pounding rhythmic foothold. Still, that’s not the whole plot. ‘Sky Stories’ sees Kuhn exploring the possibilities of a contemporary approach to the jazz song tradition with the same abandon as Esperanza Spalding’s early records. Using the instrumental range of her Helios ensemble, there is a sumptuous cover of the classic Johnny Green standard ‘Body and Soul’ and a yearning deeply soulful version of Milton Nascimento’s ‘Ponta de Areia’. The biggest wave though is made by the extended original ‘Queen for an Hour’, an ambitious lengthy composition with shifts and twists of epic prog intensity. Quivering strings, cool trip-hop, break downs, recycled melodies and even some jazz poetry nuzzling in, the track is some centrepiece…’illuminating the infinite possibilities’ says it all.

With all these components, two bands, string section, improvisational daring, a commitment to vocal, this record could have buckled under the weight of brilliant ideas, but it doesn’t. ‘Sky Stories’ comes together so naturally. It may emerge from a slightly different source to the hip-hop informed, beat driven swell in today’s jazz arena but it is equally refreshing. You get the feeling that Emily Kuhn is taking the jazz song tradition along a newly navigated stream and she may be only just at the beginning of the ride.

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