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Frank Kimbrough: Changing the Contexts, Keeping It Fresh

Wayne Zade BY

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Over the years, my concepts have changed, and I suppose it's from getting older. I used to love to shock people, to empty a room. All that's changed now—I feel that we can bring beauty of all types (there's ugly beauty too) to our audiences, and make their lives better.
From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in September 2002.

Frank Kimbrough is one of the most versatile and innovative pianists in jazz on the New York and national scenes. He has been the pianist in the Maria Schneider jazz orchestra and has recorded seven albums under his own name, the most recent of which is The Willow, with vibraphonist Joe Locke, released by Omnitone in August, 2002. With Ben Allison, he directs and plays in The Herbie Nichols Project, in tribute to the piano master.

All About Jazz: On The Willow, you share composing credits with Joe Locke, mainly, although there is also a piece by Tim Garland and a piece by Maria Schneider. How did you and Joe decide to use their tunes?

Frank Kimbrough: Tim Garland, whose "The Moon For Her" opens the CD, is a friend of Joe's. We did a few gigs together under Joe's leadership a few years ago, before Tim joined Chick Corea's Origin band. Tim and Joe have continued to work together, mostly in Europe, in a variety of contexts. One recent example is "Storms, Nocturnes" on the Sirocco label, in a trio with pianist Geoff Keezer. Tim is a wonderful composer, and when Joe suggested this tune, we played through it and it seemed perfect for the mood that we wanted to create. It also turned out to be the best opener for the record, because it begins duo, then adds tenor saxophone a couple minutes in, with the percussion entering at the end. It furthers the concept begun on "Saturn's Child," but lets the listener know that there are new things in store.

Likewise with The Willow. I've played in Maria's band for almost 10 years, and I remember that at the band's very first rehearsal, it was the first piece we played. I was terrified, not having played in a large ensemble context where a lot of reading was called for since I was in college. I'd been trying to forget how to read, in a sense—just trying to free myself musically and let things flow spontaneously. I remember being very nervous about my abilities to sight-read, realizing that I was making a first impression not only on her, but on 16 other musicians, most of whom make their living from the ability to sight-read and interpret music instantly.

"The Willow" has always been one of my favorite pieces in Maria's book. It's a ballad feature for Scott Robinson's baritone saxophone, and though she's recorded it a couple of times, it's never been commercially released. It seemed to be very well-suited to the concept that Joe and I have for the duo, and I thought it would be a nice opportunity to get the tune out there so people can hear it. Maria gave me a copy of the score so I could transcribe all the voicings because I really wanted to do it justice, not just treat it as another "blowing" vehicle. The way the chords are voiced gives the piano and vibes an opportunity to really mesh, so that the sound expands, and the overtones really ring—it's fairly orchestral even when played duo. On the melody, Tim Ries joins us playing two alto flutes overdubbed, with an added third track on bass clarinet. Jeff Ballard also plays hand percussion and cymbals on this one.

AAJ: You and Joe each brought about the same number of compositions to this date. Was each of you working independently, or did any of the pieces get written in response to the other's inspiration?

FK: All of the music was composed independently. Joe and I don't see each other as often as we'd like, owing to busy schedules, and I don't think that he or I ever work much as co-composers with anyone. We did get together two or three times before the recording to look at tunes and try them out, but neither Tim nor Jeff was available to rehearse, as they were both out on the road at the time. After playing through all the material we had brought, and after eliminating a few ideas, Joe and I decided which ones we thought might work best duo, and which ones would best accommodate Tim and Jeff. Some of the pieces practically played themselves ("For Duke," "Broken Toy"); others were more exacting ("Highland"), or demanded more in terms of arrangements ("The Willow," "Truth Be Told," "Now I Lay Me Down"). Some were new ("Pick Up Sticks"), some more than 15 years old ("Just Suppose," "Forsythia"). We just brought in things we wanted to do that we thought would work well in the context in which we play.

I faxed the music to Tim a day or two before the recording, and asked him to bring whatever instruments he thought appropriate—Joe and I had some ideas, but we both wanted his input too, since he has such great command of so many different reed instruments. He showed up with two arms full—tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones, alto flute and bass clarinet, and used them all before the day was done. The same held for Jeff— there were no rehearsals outside the studio. The only thing we knew was that we wanted hand percussion and cymbals—no drum "set." I heard cajon on my piece "Pick Up Sticks" because he played it with Maria's band on the "Allegresse" CD, and it was a beautiful sound, so I asked him to bring that. Otherwise, everything was left up to him. He brought lots of bells, hand drums, cymbals, wood blocks and other things, all of which are listed in the notes to the CD.

In the studio, we'd play through the tune, then sketch out an arrangement, and let the tape roll. Surprisingly, most of the tunes were done in one or maybe two takes—Tim got caught in traffic and showed up an hour late for the session, and we only had one afternoon to do it. It was an incredible, intense experience—I remember going into the control room to listen to a playback, and Tim was transposing the part to the tune we were doing next. Since I didn't know what horns he was bringing to the session, I had faxed him concert charts, and he was dealing with transpositions as we worked. It was beautiful—four guys show up, with only their abilities, a few tunes, and a vague idea of what they want to do with them, and five or six hours later, it's done!

AAJ: In your mind, in what sense is The Willow the successor to Saturn's Child? I know you two have added Tim Ries and Jeff Ballard, and I'd like to talk about them more. But did you have the earlier album in mind at all, or did you feel this was really rather new?

FK: I don't make a habit of revisiting my recordings—by the time I've listened to them enough to make decisions about what takes to choose, how to sequence the CD, etc., I've heard enough. I've listened to "Saturn's Child" maybe once or twice since it came out, but scores of times before it came out. Having said that, the duo concept is something we wanted to continue and expand on, so that the feeling of the first CD is continued into the next. Having Tim and Jeff on half the tunes allows us to expand on the duo concept—it's not a traditional quartet sound we're looking for, but an expansion or enhancement of the duo. We wanted it to be a special project. We have a great, supportive producer, a wonderful piano and a vibrant room in which to record, along with a great engineer, Joe Marciano, who experienced the joy and excitement of our day of music-making in much the same way we did. Why waste all of that to go in and make just another record? Each record we make is a document—a snapshot of a particular day—I feel it should be a snapshot of a special, enjoyable day if at all possible.

AAJ: You have yet to release a solo recording, although I know you have performed solo in concert and have had long-standing solo gigs in clubs. What are the challenges facing the pianist who performs solo? Is there also a kind of "relief" in playing solo piano too—I think McCoy Tyner suggested that once.

FK: I would love to put out a solo album—maybe some day. There just doesn't appear to be that much interest on the part of record companies, Jarrett and a few others notwithstanding. I'd really like to do a solo album of Annette Peacock's compositions—I've lived with them and played them off and on for 20 years—they're very introspective, and kind of dark, but there's a stark beauty about them that's different from any other music I've played—very special music.

Playing solo, one is faced with a number of challenges, first of which is usually the piano itself. Most aren't adequately maintained, and many people who buy them, either for their home or for a concert stage, are unfortunately more impressed with lacquer than with quality of sound. Committing to a good instrument is like buying a Rolls-Royce—expensive, and costly to maintain. Secondly, concert presenters are usually of the opinion that no one wants to hear a solo pianist—not exciting enough to fill a big stage. Thirdly, you have the boredom factor—I want to hear something spontaneous and alive, and when so many solo pianists simply trot out their pianisms, licks, and preordained substitutions, it can get pretty boring.

My rule for myself when I did a steady solo gig in the Village years ago was to learn a new tune every night—I didn't have a piano at home at the time, so I would transcribe the tune by ear, then memorize it, and then go into the gig and play it—first tune of the first set and last tune of the last set—that way the tune became set in my memory. There is also a relief in playing solo—there's no one else to deal with harmonically or rhythmically, so that you can make tempo changes, modulations or anything else without anyone having to follow what you're doing. As long as you're idea-sufficient, you're in good shape. Otherwise, you may indeed miss the ones you're supposedly happy to be free of for lack of input.

AAJ: Playing solo seems to offer the possibility of realizing instrumentally the intimacy, the uniqueness, of the human voice. You have played with a number of vocalists, such as Diane Hubka and Kendra Shank. Is this a way you might think of playing solo piano?

FK: No. I understand your equating solo piano with the voice—in this case I'm singing my song. However, playing solo in an entirely different matter to me. It's your best opportunity to be yourself, albeit with no safety net of other players to mask your shortcomings. With freedom comes responsibility. Playing solo is a pianist's best opportunity to take everything they've ever thought about, listened to or composed, and pour it through the funnel of their imagination and have it come out as a unique sound.

Perhaps the best solo piano recordings I've heard offer almost a kind of history lesson in jazz, or the piano in jazz. Do you find yourself, not so much quoting other musicians, as hearing their echoes, or even conversing with them? This seems like it might be another "creative tension," as we discussed earlier.

We're all subject to our influences. As for the "creative tension" you mention, it's definitely there. You either have to live in a cave, or be influenced by something—there's no way around that. Any one who tells you they have no influences is either deluded or putting you on. I try to respect my influences without being overly reverential, and will always believe that the best way to respect any tradition is to extend it. My list of influences is long, and I'm influenced by different people and things for various reasons. A quick, non-comprehensive list off the top of my head would include in no particular order: Paul Bley, Andrew Hill, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Earl Hines, Annette Peacock, Howlin' Wolf, Lennie Tristano, Monk, Messiaen, Mompou, Morton Feldman, Abdullah Ibrahim, Shirley Horn, Keith Jarrett, Bach, Balinese music, John Cage's prepared piano music, Ran Blake, etc...

AAJ: You have contributed immensely to the recognition and restoration of the music and recordings of Herbie Nichols. Yet in interviews you have occasionally mentioned the pianist Andrew Hill, who, thankfully, is still alive and enjoying a new recognition too. What interest you about Andrew and his music?

FK: My first exposure to Andrew Hill was his Black Fire album on Blue Note. It excited me so much, both in terms of composition and Andrew's playing, which has always been, and continues to be so unique. I got as many of his recordings as I could find, but thought of him almost as though he were dead—he was sort of off the scene, at least on the East coast, for quite a while. He has been a great supporter of mine for years, and when he was still in Portland we spoke by telephone from time to time. I remember when he called and told me he was moving back East—I was so happy because I knew this would allow him to jump-start his career, meet young players here in NY who would be ready, willing and able to make his music come alive, and by now that's all been fully realized. When he formed the sextet and they debuted at the Knitting Factory I stood in the balcony and wept as they played because I could see that in one set, his whole musical life changed. This man has been seriously overlooked, and it's beautiful to see all the good things that are happening for him the past couple of years.

We first met in 1979 in Washington DC, where he did a solo concert at the DC Space, and have been friends ever since. The next time I saw him was probably 4 years later when he came to NYC to do one night at Sweet Basil with a quartet that included Jimmy Vass, Rufus Reid, and Ronnie Burrage. Their repertoire was limited, and I remember them playing one tune maybe four times over the course of the evening—as a waltz, swinging in 4/4, as a ballad, and then again as a march—something like that. I was amazed at Andrew's ability to use the same material in so many different ways, and to me, it succeeded. He's still doing it, only in the context of a real working band now, so it's much more cohesive in a way, since the members of his band understand the madness of his methods (or is it the other way around?). Andrew, by constantly changing the contexts of his music, keeps it fresh, even if everyone around him is at times a bit bewildered at what's going on.

AAJ: Over the years your recordings have struck me not only as highly intelligent, but also deeply personal and very moving. This might sound too grand, but in listening to your music, and afterwards, I feel the world is a better place if we can witness this kind of beauty. In the troubled times we live in, and as someone living in New York on September 11 last year, do you believe that music offers one of the last chances for hope?

FK: Music does offer one of the last chances for hope—it allows us an idealized world in which to live, even if only for the length of a CD. That time well spent offers us a vision of what the world can be. Over the years, my concepts have changed, and I suppose it's from getting older. I used to love to shock people, to empty a room. All that's changed now—I feel that we can bring beauty of all types (there's ugly beauty too) to our audiences, and make their lives better. I think that Albert Ayler said it best—"music is the healing force of the universe." If I want to be shocked, I can pick up a New York Times down the street.

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