Kevin Sun: What’s On Your Playlist?

December 13, 2016
Kevin Sun

Kevin Sun

Kevin Sun is an accomplished saxophonist-clarinetist, improvisor-composer, and writer-blogger.

Currently based out of Brooklyn, Sun previously lived in Boston and performed at local venues such as Wally’s Jazz Café, the Lily Pad, and the Beat Hotel. He studied composition with Miguel Zenón and John Hollenbeck, and cites Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Miles Okazaki, Henry Threadgill, Steve Lehman, and Mark Turner as key influences. Sun has appeared on two albums released by Endectomorph Music: Great On Paper (February 2016) and most recently Earprint (October 2016), an engaging and challenging recording which showcases Sun’s striking compositional chops and virtuosity on the sax.

Kevin previously served as editor in chief of Jazz Speaks, the official blog of The Jazz Gallery in New York City, and has conducted interviews with artists such as Herbie Hancock and Joshua Redman. His jazz blog, A Horizontal Search (www.thekevinsun.com), has been recognized by National Public Radio’s A Blog Supreme and Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math. A graduate of Harvard College (A. B. summa cum laude, English) and The New England Conservatory of Music (M.M., Jazz Performance), Sun is the first-ever jazz saxophone performance major to graduate from the five-year dual degree program offered by these schools. He also served as a teaching assistant to Vijay Iyer in the Harvard Department of Music during the spring 2016 semester.

1. Charlie Parker – “Cool Blues” (off of The Washington Concerts)

I came across this disc a few months ago when Ted Panken, writer and resident DownBeat blindfold tester, posted a track on Facebook. The album compiles a couple live sets from 1952-53 – including one where Bird goes in cold and blows over big band arrangements (you can hear him catching key changes in real time, which is a treat to witness) – but this “Cool Blues” is from a set at D.C.’s Howard Theater in ’53 with Max Roach on drums as well as two lesser-known, (I’d guess) local sidemen: Jack Holliday on piano and Franklin Skeete on drums (who also appears on Wynton Kelly’s debut from 1951). Bird’s playing on this concert is wildly inventive; on this particular cut, Bird takes chorus after chorus, each a gem, and moves into territory that I hadn’t previously heard him venturing into elsewhere on record. 

2. Anna Webber’s Simple Trio – “Underhelmed” (off of Binary)

Anna Webber is easily one of the most compelling recent composer-improvisors on the creative music scene in New York. She has a plummy, unmannered tenor sound (which might remind some of Chris Speed), as well as a distinctively spiky language and attention to raw sound, not to mention her virtuosic flutistry. Compositions like “Underhelmed” foreground her attention to novel rhythmic frameworks and an idiosyncratic approach to organizing pitch and rhythmic material within that; all this to say that she writes grooving, variously dense and spare music that feels explosive yet neatly contained, somehow – compositionally disciplined but improvisationally adventurous. It’s really inspiring.

3. Lester Young/Nat King Cole/Buddy Rich – “Back To The Land” (off of Lester Young Trio)

After listening to Warne Marsh for a while last year and this year, I got more serious about checking out Lester Young. This record has been used to argue that, contrary to popular narrative, his playing was still brilliant after his traumatic experience in the army; I agree that his postwar records aren’t necessarily inferior to the canonical earlier recordings, but I do detect a creeping fragility in his sound on this record (which would dominate his later recordings on Verve), but rhythmically he’s still as in it as on the records with Count Basie and other small groups. Nat King Cole plays beautifully on this; his spidery bass lines on this blues mesh well with his lithe, mischievous right hand, and the flourishes and harmonic detail continues to astound.

4. Andrew Cyrille & Bill McHenry – “Drum Song For Leadbelly” (off of Proximity)

First, the obvious: there’s so much Ain this song! Despite or perhaps because of the insistence of the tune, the whole thing grows on me the more I listen. Andrew Cyrille needs no introduction, of course, and the whole record is so satisfying on a plain, song-by-song basis, including how it was recorded: dry, direct. Bill McHenry’s someone I’ve admired from afar for a while, although I’m not really a devotee the way some of my other friends are. Listening to this album, the spiritual, sonic trace of Coltrane in McHenry’s sound becomes really apparent, which I hadn’t noticed before. I remember listening to the record through speakers while cooking and suddenly feeling like I was listening to Coltrane on a ballad.

5. Billy Holiday & Teddy Wilson – “I’ll Never Be the Same” (off of Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles)

I’ve listened to the Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson Orchestra takes on and off over the past few years, but I was reminded of this particular cut during a lecture that Ethan Iverson gave last winter at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem as part of a series on stride piano. After the intro by Lester Young up front, Teddy Wilson takes a single, devastatingly beautiful chorus (one of the phrase punctuations toward the end made Ethan go, “Did he really just play that?” and put his head in his hands). Then, Billie sings while Lester weaves in and out, and the song ends at just over three minutes – a perfect take.

6. Blank Banshee – “Wavestep,” (off of Blank Banshee 0)

I’m largely ignorant of the cultural context surrounding vaporwave, but I came upon this again recently and randomly on Bandcamp. A roommate in music school played some vaporwave for me, and I’ve found this album for the most part to be a winning balance of soothingly immersive electronic production and just enough vocals to break things up. Some of it (e.g., “Bathsalts”) also strikes me as obnoxious in an entertaining and fun-to-listen-to way.

7. Archie Shepp – “In a Sentimental Mood” (off of Live in San Francisco)

This is indisputably one of the great unaccompanied saxophone introductions in recorded music: vocal, speechlike, both ancient-sounding and futuristic. My friend Martin Porter played this for me without context after I mentioned that I hadn’t really checked out Archie Shepp, and Shepp’s sound has been deep in my ears ever since – in particular, his speaking in runic, blues-tinged utterances on the horn while defying any and all notational transcription. I also love the selections on the rest of the date, including the Herbie Nichols tune, “Lady Sings the Blues.”

8. Mobb Deep – “Survival of the Fittest” (off of The Infamous)

I’m in no way a hip-hop connoisseur, but my friend, the pianist Dana Saul, is; he was gifted a blue vinyl copy of this by a benevolent neighbor in his Prospect Lefferts Gardens apartment building, and we listened to it together a few months ago. It’s a dark and unrelenting album, and it’s hard to stop listening once it gets going. Easter Egg: A somewhat recent YouTube video purports to reveal the source of the brooding, subterranean piano sample on “Survival of the Fittest,” which is none other than a transformed fragment of Barry Harris’s intro to “Skylark” from the 1973 record, Barry Harris Trio With Al Cohn.

9. Ben van Gelder  – “Silver Grey Reprise”  (from Among Verticals)

BVG is one of the more visible recent saxophonists in modern jazz, and for good reason: his keen sense of melody and counterpoint; a bandleading sensibility that delicately balances heroic soloing with satisfying ensemble work; and a personal sound that, to my ears, seems to have become more raw and volatile in the past year or two, which I find myself moving toward as well (see: Archie Shepp, above). Something that’s been disillusioning to me about recent mainstream modern jazz is what sounds to me like shredding for shredding’s sake; Ben’s music, by comparison, has held appeal for me in its unusual discipline and restraint, but tracks like this illustrate his also earning the right as it were to cut loose when such playing is narratively and emotionally warranted in context.

10. Charlie Parker – “An Oscar for Treadwell – Incomplete 411-1,” (from Unheard Bird

This is the first of four takes of “An Oscar for Treadwell,” a rhythm changes on a Verve session that improbably included both Thelonious Monk and Buddy Rich in the rhythm section as well as the omnipresent Curly Russell plus Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet. Bird sounds relaxed but focused during this take; then, in the second chorus, there’s a slight intimation of uncertainty at the last phrase of the first A section. By the bridge, a slight hiccup in a phrase soon begets another hiccup, and suddenly Bird stops playing and whistles to cut the take. In comparison to the master take, the playing on this first take is, to my ears, clearly fresher and more inventive, but it’s valuable to have the obvious confirmed here: Bird wasn’t infallible. He was more creative perhaps when he allowed himself to be vulnerable and to make mistakes, as in this instance, and I’ve found it instructive to observe the care with which he attended to the documentation of his recorded legacy.

Kevin Sun’s most recent album, Earprint (Endectomorph) was released on October 21 of this year. www.thekevinsun.com

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