Frank Kimbrough of the Jazz Composers Collective

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in November 1999.

Frank Kimbrough (pianist/composer) was born on November 2, 1956 in Roxboro, NC and currently resides in New York.

As a founding member and composer-in-residence of the Jazz Composers Collective, Mr. Kimbrough's works have been prominently featured in numerous concerts presented by the JCC. Mr. Kimbrough has led several groups for these concerts, the most significant being the Frank Kimbrough Trio (with bassist Ben Allison and drummer Jeff Ballard); and Noumena (with guitarist Ben Monder, saxophonist Scott Robinson, and drummer Tony Moreno). In addition to his own compositions, Mr. Kimbrough also actively participates in the recording and performing of music composed by other members or guest composers of the JCC.

The Herbie Nichols Project (which Mr. Kimbrough co-leads with Mr. Allison) is a JCC project that is worthy of special mention. A recognized authority on the life and music of the undeservedly obscure pianist/composer Herbie Nichols (1919-1963), Mr. Kimbrough was awarded a Jazz Performance Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995 to fund two HNP concerts in New York City, which showcased 24 of Nichols' compositions performed by 12 musicians in 16 different ensemble configurations. The HNP has subsequently toured the USofA and Europe and has recorded two CDs for Soul Note Records. Mr. Kimbrough has also written about Nichols' life and work for the journal O Papel do Jazz (Portugal), the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, and liner notes for The Complete Blue Note Recordings Of Herbie Nichols.

Since 1993, Mr. Kimbrough has toured worldwide with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra and participated in her five-year (1993-98) residency on Monday nights at Visiones in Greenwich Village. He also appears on her Grammy-nominated CD, Coming About, and has also contributed to Ms. Schneider's collaborations with the Pilobolus Dance Company.

As a jazz educator, Mr. Kimbrough served on the faculty of Cannon Music Camp at Appalachian State University (1989-1996) and has subsequently served on the faculty of New York University's Department of Performing Arts Professions, where he teaches jazz piano, improvisation, and leads student ensembles. He has conducted workshops at the Paris Conservatory (with Maria Schneider), Oxford University (with the Herbie Nichols Project), and numerous institutions in the USofA.

The most recent recordings to feature Frank Kimbrough are a collaborative duet with vibraphonist Joe Locke entitled Saturn's Child (which is the first release for the Omnitone label), the second release from the Herbie Nichols project entitled Dr. Cyclops' Dream (Soul Note), the debut CD from JCC member Ron Horton entitled Genius Envy (which is the second release for OmniTone), and the latest from JCC member Ted Nash entitled Rhyme and Reason (Arabesque). All of these recordings were released in Oct. 1999.

Of Saturn's Child, AAJ Modern Jazz Editor Glenn Astarita writes:

"Saturn's Child is a striking foray into supremely intuitive interplay and lush melodicism via charming and bittersweet phraseology—Kimbrough and Locke engage their thoughts and demonstrate uncanny synergy as they delicately articulate sleek, smooth passages which are at times, somber, pensive and in many instances, spiritually uplifting...Kimbrough and Locke have created a sparkling gem here..."

To help celebrate the release of Saturn's Child, Frank Kimbrough was kind enough to participate in the following interview, which was conducted via e-mail in September 1999.

All About Jazz: Why, what, when, or who motivated you to begin playing the piano?

Frank Kimbrough: My parents say that I began playing at age three. I would pick out things I was hearing, or just improvise. Music was all around. My mother and grandmother taught piano, often at home, so I experienced lots of piano lessons other than my own. They played in church and sang in the choir, my dad sang and played a little violin when I was small, and I remember my parents playing and singing after they had put me to bed. I thought everyone played music, so I gravitated to it very naturally. I played organ in church, too, from age twelve until I finished high school. I played in local rock bands, the marching band (cymbals), accompanied the school chorus, and even played organ at basketball games. I think my first paying gig was a funeral—my dad's a florist, and he knew the guys at the funeral home, so he hooked me up!

AAJ: When, why, or how did you decide to become a professional musician?

FK: I never thought about it. From the earliest time I can remember, I've just thought of myself as a musician. My parents understood very well the importance of music to me, and never pressured me to get a "real" job. By the time I realized how hard it is to make a living, it was too late!

AAJ: Obviously the music of Herbie Nichols is profoundly meaningful for you. Is there anyone else who provides you with similar inspiration if not influence? Who would you consider to be "formative influences" for you?

FK: My earliest influences outside my family were my first two teachers. I started studying with Alfred Foy when I was seven, then after a few years I studied with Mabel Woods until I went to college. She had been my mother's teacher, and we remained very close until she died earlier this year. My teachers both gave me a strong foundation in terms of technique and repertoire, and were very patient with me. Growing up in the rural south, I didn't really hear any jazz until I was seventeen or so. The pianists I listened to first were Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett. They influenced me at a distance. Later on, I spent time hanging out with Shirley Horn, Paul Bley and Andrew Hill. They've all been very supportive, and I've learned many different things from each of them. And I should mention Lance Hayward—I worked opposite him at a club in the Village from '85—90. He was forty years older than me, and really had something unique as a pianist. He didn't influence the way I play, but we spent countless hours listening and playing for each other—swapping tunes, and arguing good naturedly. He taught me how to put a set together.

AAJ: As a follow up, is it a concern for you, as either an instrumentalist or composer to avoid crossing the fine line between being "influenced by" and being "imitative of"? If "yes," how do you feel you avoid doing so? If "no," why not?

FK: We're all influenced by a great many things. In the information age it's impossible to get away from music, so we're more influenced by more music than any generation in history. We steal from the players we most admire, and slowly turn that information over in our brain until it becomes integrated into our playing. It's a process that takes time—years; and sure, there are rich traditions in all types of music, but the best way to respect a tradition is to extend it, so that we're playing music that's alive. The idea of saving the music or preserving it is amusing to me. The music is too strong to need saving. We need it to save us.

AAJ: In your recent interview with Frank Tafuri, you mentioned that it was difficult if not impossible for you to cite specific inspirations for your compositions. But to probe the concept of inspiration a bit further, do you feel that you intentionally expose yourself to opportunities for inspiration? i.e., do you seek out possible sources of inspiration hoping to assimilate and utilize them, albeit unconsciously, at a later time? Why or why not?

FK: I don't put pressure on myself to compose. When it's time, it happens, usually late at night and away from the piano. I don't think anyone can chase inspiration—it finds you, and may be initiated by something as simple as a random act of kindness or a smile. My greatest inspiration is the sense of community I feel when I'm working with musicians that exhibit a high level of trust. When you are free to fail, you can try anything, and mistakes become an invitation to magic. That's inspiration.

AAJ: As a jazz educator, in addition to techniques of jazz performance, composition and improvisation, do you feel that intangibles such as enhancements to creativity or imaginative prowess can be taught? If so, how? What approaches might be employed?

FK: I try to set up conditions that allow students to experience the joys of playing—not the neuroses. The best thing to teach a student is to be open to what's happening around them. While you're teaching them to be open, you also have to teach basics. There are more distractions and less opportunities to play than there used to be. Consequently, many students don't spend as much time playing, and aren't as comfortable with their instruments as they could be. It's easier to be inspired when they don't have to struggle just to get a sound, or to figure out what scales to play. Once they can get around their instrument, and know how to hear, and learn to listen to and trust the people with whom they are playing, they can do anything. By teaching basics and openness, you invite the enhancement of creativity. If you only teach a style, you're teaching them to be obsolete by the time they finish school.

AAJ: As follow ups, what are the most common misconceptions about jazz that your students have? What concepts do they have the most difficulty in grasping?

FK: They have no idea how difficult it's going to be to make a living once they're out of school! A lot of them won't survive with careers in music. It's all about one's comfort threshold, being patient, continuing to grow, and learning how to make a career literally out of nothing. It's also hard for them to grasp the idea that it's OK to make mistakes. I tell my students to make as many as possible, and to try to learn something from each one.

AAJ: What have you learned about your own music from teaching others?

FK: The values of simplicity and clarity.

AAJ: Are you capable of distinguishing between your objectives as a composer and your needs as an improviser? Why or why not?

FK: My objective as a composer is to write as little as possible, and to trust the other musicians to do what they do best. That concept plays to the strengths of the improviser. As an improviser, I need to know that there is trust in my judgment. That's it.

AAJ: follow-ups: What advantages of improvisation do you feel composers usually don't understand or appreciate? What advantages of composition do you feel improvisers usually don't understand or appreciate?

FK: It's a question of balance. The "control freak" composer and the thoughtless improviser are both difficult to deal with. Improvisational composers and compositional improvisers are much more desirable.

AAJ: One of the albums that first drew me towards jazz was Crystal Silence by Gary Burton (vibes) and Chick Corea (piano). Was this recording crucial in the consideration of making Saturn's Child? Why or why not?

FK: I had that record in the seventies, and loved it, but haven't heard it for a long time. I appreciate that music very much, but I can't say that Joe and I gave it any consideration when we made our record. Saturn's Child is about the relationship between Joe and myself. We've played together off and on and shared each other's ups and downs for seventeen years. The session was conceived simply as an afternoon of friendly music making, nothing more, nothing less. We really didn't even approach the session as a "record." I think that contributed to the relaxed quality of the playing that day.

AAJ: How was it that Charlie Haden's "Silence" was chosen to be included on this recording? Was the closing tune, "Midnight," improvised by you and Mr. Locke or co-composed?

FK: We chose "Silence" because our idea for the recording was to convey a peaceful feeling, and "Silence" is really about that. I've always admired Charlie Haden very much, both as a bassist and composer. "Midnight" began as an intro that Joe wrote to "Round Midnight," but then we thought maybe it would be too long, so we discarded the tune, played the intro, and improvised the rest.

AAJ: Could you please describe your band Noumena for us and tell us about the upcoming cd release? (Judging by the cat. no., has this disc been delayed for some time ?)

FK: Noumena is a quartet I put together to play my compositions. The name comes from Kerouac's book On The Road, where he writes that "Noumena is what you see with your eyes closed." The group features some of the most imaginative players that I've come in contact with. Scott Robinson, whom I've known for twenty years, plays tenor and bass saxophones. He's an amazing multi-instrumentalist who's well versed in the jazz tradition, yet he's always searching musically. Ben Monder is a wonderful guitarist, a real orchestrator with a fantastic imagination and incredible technique. He also knows the value of economy. Tony Moreno plays drums and percussion. He's a very sensitive listener and collaborator who's always full of surprises. Scott, Ben and I have played on Maria Schneider's band for the last six years. Tony and I met when we played in the house band at the Blue Note's late night jam sessions a few years ago. The Noumena cd was recorded live at a Jazz Composers Collective concert in late 1997, and is the first Collective concert to be released on cd. I'm very excited about that. It's the complete set, in real time, with no edits, beautifully recorded by Jon Rosenberg. It's scheduled for release next March on Soul Note. I'm thrilled with the way the music was played and the sound we got. There's no bassist in the group, so harmonically it's very open. The time is looser, more transparent, and we play with more of an orchestral sensibility. Tony is freed from always having to state the time and can comment on it instead. (I know nothing about Soul Note's catalog system, so you got me there.)

AAJ: A critic recently referred the piano trio format as "a dusty mummy" (this was NOT directed to your trio specifically, but to piano trios in general). How would you respond to that comment?

FK: The piano trio isn't a dusty mummy, it's the standard trio concept that's dusty. The piano is capable of much more than it's normally required to do on an average trio date. There's a repertoire problem, a touch problem, and the fact is that most piano trios are purveyors of nostalgia. It doesn't have to be that way, though. Check out Duke Ellington's Money Jungle, Chick Corea's Arc, or any of Cecil Taylor's trios. Marilyn Crispell made a wonderful trio recording of Annette Peacock's music a few years ago. Bobo Stenson has a beautiful trio. I heard Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian a few nights ago at Birdland. They played standards like I Can't Get Started and stretched them to the breaking point and beyond. Almost no one knew what they were playing! They were using standard tunes as templates for form, or as melodic points of reference, without restricting themselves in any way. After hearing that kind of invention at work, I don't want to hear any more cliches, so I know what your colleague is saying, but it's not the piano's fault. It may be the fault of players or promoters who underestimate their audiences, and the challenges their audiences may be looking for.

AAJ: In general, do you feel that the "solo piano" concept has been overdone? Why or why not?

FK: It's the same as the dusty mummy trio syndrome. The question is "How long can we listen to the same tunes, played the same way?" Given a good instrument, a quiet, attentive audience (in live situations), and an interested player playing interesting music, I think I would have to disagree that it's been overdone.

AAJ: You've had a lengthy tenure as a member of the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra. What lessons or insights have you achieved from working in this band?

FK: The opportunity to play Maria's music is one of the greatest gifts I've ever received, both musically and personally. Maria is a tremendously gifted composer / arranger who creates beautiful environments in which to play. She gives players a great deal of latitude to be themselves within the context of her compositions, and she's very mindful of the individual strengths of the players—she always writes with those individuals in mind. The fact that in six years there have only been two changes in personnel in the band says a lot about how all the players feel about it. We've toured a lot in Europe, and made one trip to China, and I'm very grateful for having the opportunity to play in new places, and to make new friends. I came to New York in 1981, anxious to tour, but didn't do so until 1996, so I've never taken touring for granted.

AAJ: In your other work as a sideman, which performances or recordings have been the most fun, most enjoyable, or most memorable? Which have been the most demanding or challenging? From which have you learned the most as a musician or composer? What is it you've learned from the above?

FK: The last year has been great, because each composer-in-residence in the Collective has made a new record. We've worked very hard for seven years, and things are beginning to come to fruition. Each of the projects we undertake is totally different from the last, even though the personnel overlaps a lot. I'm really proud of what Ben's done with Medicine Wheel, Ted's Double Quartet project, Michael's new recording for Intuition. And now Ron Horton, our stalwart trumpet player / archivist, and most recent addition as composer-in-residence, has his first cd out as a leader. That's long overdue. Each recording presents new and different challenges—they may be musical, personal, or logistical. That's what keeps things interesting.

AAJ: Do you have any preparatory routines or rituals prior to performing live?

FK: For several years in the late ‘80's, I had a solo piano gig at a club on Bleecker Street in New York's Greenwich Village. The gig started at 9pm and went to 3am. I tried to learn a new tune for every night I worked. I didn't have a piano at the time, so I transcribed new tunes in an armchair, then memorized them(often on the subway or on a walk), and then went to the gig and played them. The new tune was always the first tune of the first set. Then I'd repeat it for the last tune of the last set. I was working on my ability to hear, and memorization, and retention, all at once. I realized that learning and working away from the piano was very important, and I learned hundreds of tunes that way. As for before the gig, I just want to be happy and relaxed, so a friendly conversation or quiet time is good. Other than that, I don't do anything. If there isn't a sound check, I don't even touch the piano. I save it for the performance. The same goes for practicing. I don't practice, I wait to play. If I'm called upon to play a particularly difficult part, I take it to the armchair and study it, and may play through it a time or two before a rehearsal, but I don't usually go through a laborious practice routine.

AAJ: What's the funniest or most embarrassing thing that's happened to you while performing or recording?

FK: There are a few things that come to mind—an outdoor performance where it was very windy, and I asked the stage manager for something to hold the music in place, and he went away and came back with a roll of contact paper! I ended up with about four audience members holding the scores down for me—it was really windy. Another time a singer, coming back for an encore at the end of a performance, called an obscure tune we hadn't rehearsed and that I didn't know. The chart was hastily and sloppily written—chord changes with no melody at all. She asked for an intro, and I played one, but she couldn't find her first note, so after an awkward and embarrassing pause, she asked me (audibly) for her first note. I told her (audibly) that I had no idea—it wasn't on the chart. That was my first and last gig with her.

AAJ: What can a musician learn from being told by an audience member (post-performance) that he or she "played exceptionally well" or was "extremely moving" when he or she feels their performance was sub-standard?

FK: The performer is sometimes the last person to know how well we have performed because we were "in the moment," and too close to know. I've had the experience of thinking a performance was lousy, but hearing it later on tape, realizing that it was quite good. The reverse sometimes happens, too. When a audience member compliments me, I appreciate it and sincerely thank them—to do otherwise is insulting, and turns their generosity into an embarrassing moment for them.

AAJ: What contemporary musicians have you heard that you feel deserve greater recognition? (aside from JCC associates)

FK: There are lots—saxophonists like Tony Malaby, Andy Laster, Rich Perry, Greg Tardy, Tim Ries, and Patrick Zimmerli; trumpeter Dave Ballou, pianists Kevin Hays and Jason Moran, bassists Ed Howard, Scott Colley and Francois Moutin,—I could go on and on. New York is a great environment for making music right now. There's a lot going on, and hundreds of great players. I couldn't begin to list them all.

AAJ: In the Omnitone interview with Frank Tafuri, you mention having listened to many ECM recordings while in college. What are some of your favorite titles from that era?

FK: Paul Bley—With Gary Peacock and Open to Love, Chick Corea's PIANO IMPROVISATIONS, and Circle's Paris Concert; Keith Jarrett's European and American quartets, and his solo records Facing You and Staircase. I remember lots of others too, records by Enrico Rava, Jan Garbarek, Bobo Stenson, Dave Holland, Tomasz Stanko, and Paul Motian.

AAJ: As a follow up, what artists from ECM would you most like to work with?

FK: I really think it's important to work with your peers—people with whom you share a trust. I'm very wary of hiring people for their name, or because you think they can sell your record for you. That's the quickest way to ruin a record date. But in an ideal world, I'd love to work with Gary Peacock. It's easy to say that, though. Sometimes you love the way someone plays, but then find them difficult to play with, or vice-versa. I would definitely give it a shot with him, though. He's probably my favorite bassist that I haven't played with.

AAJ: Since you participate in the Jazz Composers Collective, I have to ask if the phrase "Modern Jazz" actually has any meaning or significance for you? If so, where do you see "Modern Jazz" heading within the next 5 years? How (or will) Frank Kimbrough fit into this?

FK: Not really. "Modern" means nothing—"jazz" means less than nothing. It's an inclusive music. "Jazz" just gives you a section of the record store to go to. The word means less and less every day because the music includes more every day.

AAJ: In conclusion, what other projects can we expect from Frank Kimbrough in 2000-2001?

FK: I did a solo project this summer, but I don't know where it will end up. I did it in one day at a theater in the Village, with a young engineer named Misha Davidson. Just the two of us—very relaxed and spontaneous. I went through all my music the night before the session and picked out music I felt like playing. There was no plan. I did four of Annette Peacock's tunes—tunes I've loved and played for twenty years, but had never recorded; also pieces by some of my other favorite composers: Andrew Hill, Wayne Shorter, Joe Locke, Paul Motian, and a couple of originals. Maria Schneider is planning recordings live and in the studio in January, 2000. I'm looking forward to that very much, because she's come up with some new pieces recently that are beautiful and challenging, moving further into an orchestral sound. I hope to do another record with Kendra Shank next year, too. I'd love to go into the studio with Noumena. I think extraordinary things are possible with that group. I'd also like to do another trio recording with Ben Allison and Jeff Ballard.

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