Jazz Composers Collective Concert Series
The house is packed here at downtown Manhattan's New School Jazz Performance Space. Approximately two hundred people have gathered to hear the Herbie Nichols Project and the Ted Nash Double Quartet, two bands from the roster of the Jazz Composers Collective, a support network for like-minded jazz musicians. At the door is a student recruit handing out programs with band member bios and a listing of the evening's selections. This is very much a recital, not a club gig. The Collective takes presentation seriously, you see. There's an aura of intelligence surrounding their music, their events, even their promotional literature. But their seriousness is not to be confused with stuffiness. Saxophonist Ted Nash may be wearing a suit, but bassist Ben Allison is wearing a T-shirt.
Nash, Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and drummer Tim Horner are in both of tonight's bands. Rounding out the Herbie Nichols Project are Ron Horton on trumpet and fluegelhorn and Billy Drewes on tenor and soprano saxophones. (Drewes is subbing for Michael Blake, who plays on the group's new CD.) The other half of Nash's Double Quartet is actually a quintet, and an unusual one for jazz: Miri Ben-Ari and Joyce Hamann on violins, Ron Lawrence on viola, Tomas Ulrich on cello, and Erik Charlston on vibes and percussion.
In his other life, Nash graces the sax section of Wynton Marsalis's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Marsalis in turn graces two selections on Nash's new CD, Rhyme and Reason (Arabesque). Contributing to the anticipation in the room is the fact that Marsalis will be the featured guest on the same two selections here tonight. Loosely speaking, Marsalis and the LCJO tend toward traditionalism while the JCC favors an avant-garde sensibility. But the presence of Marsalis and Nash in each other's groups illustrates just how slippery these categories can be. We're going to witness a meeting of the minds, an encounter between disparate but entirely compatible jazz philosophies.
Kimbrough and Allison formed the HNP to honor pianist and composer Herbie Nichols, who died in obscurity in 1963. The group has recorded two CDs on the Soul Note label, 1996's Love Is Proximity and 1999's Dr. Cyclops' Dream. The first disc primarily features material which Nichols himself recorded. But the new release contains something quite novel: tunes and/or fragments of tunes that were unearthed in lead sheet form and have never seen the light of day until now. As Allison explains from the stage, "A lot of this music has no precedent."
The group, therefore, had little choice but to grant itself wide creative liberties in preparing this music. Allison freely admits that he and his bandmates brought their own compositional, orchestrational, and aesthetic sensibilities to bear on Nichols's work. "We have no right to do this, we're just doing it," says Allison. "No one's asking us to do it," he continues, and before he can finish the thought, Nash grins and interjects, "but no one's asking us to stop."
Nash, Horton, and Drewes begin the set by playing "Crisp Day" and "Blue Chopsticks" simultaneously, i.e., two horns play one melody while the third horn plays the other. This juxtaposition appears on Love Is Proximity as an arrangement for the full band; here the horns perform it alone as a brief and irreverent fanfare. Then Allison sets up "Swan Song," an infectious melody which the band superimposes over a slightly ominous 5/4 vamp. Drewes, Horton, and Horner solo.
Off to an inspiring start, the set continues with the fabulous, Mingus-like "Bartok" and the dark, opaque ballad "Dr. Cyclops' Dream." Kimbrough and Horton lay out for a bluesy tenor battle on "Beyond Recall." "Valse Macabre" features the arresting front line of Nash's alto flute, Horton's fluegelhorn, and Drewes's soprano. And the up-tempo finale, "It Didn't Happen," contains a dramatic highlight: The band drops out while Drewes blows soprano over knotty changes laid down by Kimbrough. Drewes's soprano sound is breathy and tactile; you can practically reach out and touch it. Drewes and Nash also bring richly complementary tenor approaches to the band. Their playing is equally modern in content, but Nash's tone is bright and of Mintzer/Berg vintage, while Drewes is more old school, with a round, velvety sound.