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Some four decades after his untimely death, appreciation for Herbie Nichols' unique musical gifts has at last reached an audible pitch. With tributes by Roswell Rudd, the Herbie Nichols Project and a sparse-load of others already in the can, guitarist Eric T. Johnson jumps into the fray with his newest release.
As those who have tried their hand will readily attest, the late pianist's music is far from a walk in the park. Though brimming with beauty, tenderness and melancholy, Nichols' eclectic pen demands utmost sensitivity and discipline from its interpreters. That said, Johnson and company - rounded out by Phil Grenadier on trumpet, George Garzone on saxophones, Bob Nieske on bass, and Nat Mugavero on drums - have clearly done their homework. Throughout the set, the ensemble remains faithful to the material at hand, while infusing it with originality and freshness of their own invention.
Of particular note are Johnson's arrangements, which cast intriguing degrees of shadow and light through harmonic pairings of guitar and horn. On "Love, Gloom, Cash, Love," for instance, Johnson picks delicate, tender lines while Grenadier's trumpet deftly cascades up and down the melody. With "Crisp Day," the contrast is even more dramatic, as Johnson's musing guitar plays parent to Garzone's youthful, frolicking soprano. In both cases, the result is a delightfully textured sound that manifests the depth of Nichols' compositions.
Above all else, Johnson's recording reinforces the fact that, though buried for some 40 years, this material remains compelling and poignant to the ear today. The more musicians endeavor to play this fine music, the more people will get a chance to hear it - and eventually, perchance, the rightful legacy of Herbie Nichols will at last be realized.