In the third week of January, 2003, St. Louis was entering its annual deep cold snap as members of the Jazz Composers Collective landed after 24 total hours of travel from a concert in Milan. Although audiences at Jazz at the Bistro on the second night of the four-night run were small, they came prepared for the heat and light that bassist Ben Allison's band Peace Pipe and pianist Frank Kimbrough's Trio generated.
The JCC, a non-profit, musician-run organization dedicated to presenting the original music of its members, celebrates its 11th season this year. The Milan concert was preceded by one at home in New York in January, 2003, at the National Arts Club by the same two groups. Other groups involved in the St. Louis "Festival" were saxophonist Michael Blake's Quartet and the renowned Herbie Nichols Project, a band formed to honor the late distinguished pianist and composer.
On the second night in St. Louis, Allison and Peace Pipe led off. The leader plays all over his bass, strumming and picking as many young players do, but wholly his own man. Although the five musicians of Peace Pipe, in the spirit of the JCC, create a community of sound, Allison clearly is the leader and radiates great joy in his role. Kimbrough joined on piano, finding as much of interest in the strings of the instrument as on the keyboard, on "Mantra." In the spirit but never the letter of the law of Coltrane, Michael Blake played tenor and soprano saxophone brilliantly. Reminiscent of the hands-on, varied percussion stylings of Jeff Ballard and Matt Wilson, who often play in JCC ensembles, drummer Michael Sarin broke his own ground on "Third Rail," often engaging in hand-eye rhythmic contact with Kimbrough.
As engaged and engaging as these four musicians were, a kora virtuoso from Mali could melt any audience's heart, and Mamadou Diabate blended into Peace Pipe masterfully, especially on his own composition "Dakan." The kora, also known as an African harp, has 16 strings, and sounds something like a cross between a guitar and a dulcimer. Over the years musicians as diverse as Herbie Hancock and Paul Simon have incorporated African musicians and instruments into their work. But the strength of Allison's writing (on the eponymous title tune of the group's Palmetto CD) and the camaraderie within Peace Pipe lift the group way above "world music."
The Frank Kimbrough Trio, with the leader on piano, Allison on bass, and Sarin on drums, had the second set to itself. As the string quartet is the staple of chamber music, the piano trio is the nucleus of acoustic jazz. The format simultaneously offers to those who play in it the trap of triteness at every turn yet also unlimited room for vital discovery, and the Kimbrough trio sailed intrepidly on seas all its own.
While a founding member of the JCC, Kimbrough worked toward the perfection of the art of his trio playing on Lonely Woman (Mapleshade) and Chant (Igmod), albums recorded about ten years apart. He also has collaborated with vibraphonist Joe Locke on Saturn's Child and The Willow (both on Omnitone). At Jazz at the Bistro, he sounded like an artist reaching the peak of his powers. From Ornette Coleman's "Feet Music" to John Barry's "You Only Live Twice" to his own "Lullablueby," Kimbrough surprised and delighted his fellow musical travelers and audience throughout his set. When it was over, a beaming listener said, "Frank plays pretty and Frank plays smart." That about said it all.
More great music from these gifted and dedicated musicians will undoubtedly be heard at the Third Annual Jazz Composers Collective Festival, March 11-16, 2003, at the Jazz Standard in New York.
Special acknowledgement for the group's St. Louis concerts should go to Jazz at the Bistro director Gene Dobbs Bradford. As successor to the venerable Barbara Rose, Bradford has honored the distinguished tradition of jazz in a city that is home to many of the music's masters and he is creating his own noble standard. Jazz at the Bistro continues as one of the premiere jazz clubs in America.