By Hrayr Attarian
Emily Kuhn Sky Stories
Emily Kuhn – Trumpet, group vocals (1)
Max Bessesen – Saxophones
Mercedes Inez Martinez – Vocals (1, 3, 6, 8, 10)
Ben Cruz – Guitar (1, 6)
Evan Levine – Bass, group vocals (1)
Gustavo Cortiñas – Drums
Myra Hinrichs – Violin (1, 3, 4, 7, 8)
Lucia Thomas – Violin (6, 10)
Erendira Izguerra – Violin, group vocals (1)
Christine Fliginger – Viola
Danny Hoppe – Cello
Irekani Ferreyra – Group vocals (1),
Chris Shuttleworth – Group vocals (1)
Joe Suihkonen – trumpet (2, 5, 9)
Katie Ernst – bass (2, 5, 9)
Nate Friedman – Drums (2, 5, 9)
The accomplished trumpeter and composer Emily Kuhn has a charismatic style and a sophistication that belies her youth. In addition to being a dynamic educator, Kuhn leads the innovative and genre-bending nonet, Helios. It is primarily with this ensemble that she cut her mesmerizing debut of mostly original material, Sky Stories. True to its title, each composition has a unique narrative structure that unfolds with intrigue and elegance—yet the entire work is thematically cohesive.
“Queen for an Hour,” for instance, starts with hypnotic overlapping violin refrains that precede Kuhn’s warm and soulful trumpet. Bassist Evan Levine and drummer Gustavo Cortiñas buoy Kuhn’s burnished tones with their swaggering cadence. Thus, a perfectly dramatic ambience ensues around vocalist Mercedes Inez Martinez’s expressive and captivating singing. When the instrumental exchanges become angular, Martinez’s wordless vocals weave in and out of the riotous repartee. Kuhn improvises with eloquence and passion as a bluesy hue colors the track’s concluding moments.
The intimate “Catch Me,” on the other hand, has a folkish flavor with versatile guitarist Ben Cruz and Levine starting off with a laid-back duet. The string quartet frames Martinez’s shimmering vocals. Kuhn mirrors the incandescent violin monologue with her mellow horn, infusing the piece with a delightfully effervescent lyricism. The expectant “Beanstalk” that follows makes for a stimulating contrast. This tense and cinematic sonic tale features multireedist Max Bessesen’s muscular and haunting sax, bursting out of the dissonant core together with Cortiñas’ thundering drums.
Three of the album’s ten pieces feature the trio of bassist Katie Ernst, multi-instrumentalist Joe Suihkonen, and drummer Nate Friedman. “Fit Feat” opens with Ernst’s percussive basslines and Friedman’s rumbling polyrhythms and closes with Ernst’s achingly beautiful solo. In between, over a textured backdrop, Kuhn’s and Suihkonen’s overlapping trumpets blow languid melancholic phrases. Switching from echoing one another to dueling—and, even as they veer towards freer sounds—the strong sense of wistful nostalgia imbues their sublime performance.
The superb Sky Stories is an auspicious beginning to a remarkable musical career. With it, Kuhn has made a bold artistic statement that is going to be hard to top. Given her tremendous talent on display here, however, that will be something she will easily achieve.