The Herbie Nichols Project
November 16, 2001
Part of a brief fall tour that brought them through the Southern part of Ohio, it was a rare treat to hear the likes of The Herbie Nichols Project on the campus of Ohio State University. The intimate and acoustically sound Weigel Hall served as venue for this evening dedicated to the underrated composing genius of one Herbert Horatio Nichols. This ensemble, co-led by pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison, came to fruition in 1992 and since that time has cut three albums and has toured both in the United States and abroad on a semi-regular basis. In addition to Kimbrough and Allison, the rest of the group includes trumpeter Ron Horton, saxophonist Michael Blake, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, and drummer Matt Wilson.
A good deal of the evening’s program would come from the band’s latest disc, Strange City, which features Nichols charts that were never recorded by the pianist during his lifetime. As a publicity move, this of course means that the audience got a good taste of what the record is all about. However, it would have been nice to hear some of the more familiar Nichols items as part of the mix too (I was hoping to catch “Shuffle Montgomery” and “2300 Skiddoo” especially). Rest assured, that’s only a minor quibble however in regards to what was ultimately an intensely satisfying evening of progressive jazz.
The set got underway with “Delights,” a quirky and upbeat line that sounds amusingly off-kilter in 6/4. Horton and Blake would get into an intense section of collective improvisation that would starts things off on a high note. Much more intimate and in a ballad mood, “Moments Magical” followed with its three-way counterpoint just for the horns. Then, slightly bringing up the tempo, “Enrapture” came on with its loping medium gait and we would be more formally introduced to the musical brilliance of drummer Matt Wilson. With a smile on his face and his head bobbing in rhythm, Wilson raised the ante not by overplaying, but by filling the holes in a creative manner that utilized the entire textural spectrum that the drum set can offer.
Wycliffe Gordon is the newest member of the unit and his experience with a range of styles from swing to the avant-garde makes him the perfect front line foil. With a few dramatic shouts, Gordon would open “Blue Shout” on his own, eventually joined by only Wilson and Blake. Again, Wilson would steal the show with a varied solo spot that found him creating slide effects on the bass drum by changing the tension on the front head. A pseudo Dixie ending would wrap up this most agreeable composition.
The small amount of recorded music that Nichols left behind was exclusively in the trio format, so it was interesting to hear Kimbrough be featured in similar vein on “Karna Kangi.” Never directly slavish to Nichols’ signature sound, Kimbrough nonetheless infused the entire performance with the kind of brash irreverence that marked Nichols’s best work. More opportunities for individual members to shine came at the close of the evening. “Strange City” was a wonderful vehicle for Horton’s darkly romantic trumpet and the concluding number incorporated a wonderful spot where Blake played his tenor and soprano saxophones in tandem, recalling the work of George Braith. The lovely waltz “Love is Proximity” served as encore, the tight ensemble passages and spirited solos again confirming that the strength of this band lies in the old adage that the sum is truly greater that the sum of its parts.