Jazz Composers Collective
New York City
The Jazz Composers Collective hasn’t had a strong presence in New York’s major jazz clubs. But that began to change in late March with a three-night JCC showcase at the Jazz Standard. The Herbie Nichols Project did its thing on Wednesday, the Ted Nash Double Quartet hit on Thursday, and Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel brought down the house on Friday. The diversity of creative voices within the Collective was especially apparent, and the players more than rose to the occasion.
The Herbie Nichols Project was in a playful mood, perhaps encouraged by the ever-playful drummer Matt Wilson, who hadn’t performed with the Project since its earliest days. Wilson’s solo on the burning "Trio" was a set highlight. Ron Horton, on trumpet and flugel, was the night’s MVP, contributing solos that married staggering chops with unbridled imagination. Ben Allison had to deal with a malfunctioning bass amp, but he plowed ahead like a trooper. Pianist/leader Frank Kimbrough was in fine form, especially on "In Honor of Garner," a newly unearthed, never-recorded Nichols composition. "Shuffle Montgomery" was another dynamic addition to the band’s book.
Compared to the rough-edged sound of the Nichols Project, the Ted Nash Double Quartet, with its string section, sounded elegant. Nash’s instruments (tenor sax, clarinet, alto flute) played a relatively minor role; indeed, the leader’s self-abnegating tendencies and unorthodox ensemble configurations call Dave Douglas to mind. Playing music from 1999’s Rhyme & Reason (Arabesque), Nash’s group sounded a bit uninspired, although it was a pleasure to hear the involved orchestration of "Longing," Ben Allison’s exceptional solo on "Spirit Dance," the beautiful tenor/piano duo "Prana," and the mystical, almost Native American sound of "The Trails." Miri Ben-Ari’s violin solo on the excellent "Apollo 9" brought the set toward a vigorous conclusion.
Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel had a party onstage. Poised to begin recording its next album in the very near future, the band brought a healthy chunk of new music to the bandstand. "Swiss Cheese D" careened along with the kind of abandon that characterizes the freshest, newest music. It began with a happy African-type groove. Frank Kimbrough coaxed loud percussive sounds from the prepared piano, and Ron Horton’s use of a plunger added new surprises toward the end. Also new (or old-but-reworked) was "Jazz Scene Voyeur," a medium 6/8 tune with a faint echo of Herbie Nichols’s "Love Is Proximity," featuring Ron Horton muted. "Tiny C," a slow minor blues in the "Stolen Moments" mold, featured a solo by cellist Tomas Ulrich and a clever double-time trick ending. And "Riding the Nuclear Tiger," named after an article headline in The Economist, featured Michael Blake going for broke on soprano. Alas, drummer Mike Mazor lost the groove a couple of times, and could have given the whole tune a stronger kick in the ass.
The Jazz Composers Collective was founded to expose its members’ music to a wider audience. This auspicious club stint was a coup in that regard. People hearing these groups for the first time at the Jazz Standard got a very thorough introduction to the Collective’s modus operandi. The audiences were won over, although one woman seated near this writer complained bitterly about the Herbie Nichols Project, loudly enough for anyone within a five-table radius to hear. The group’s offenses: Some of them wore T-shirts and earrings; they hawked their own CDs from the bandstand; and the "old greats" would have played the same music better. Of course, any young jazz musician who doesn’t hawk their own CDs whenever and wherever they can is a dummy, but you wouldn’t know this if you didn’t know any young jazz musicians. And someone hankering to hear the "old greats" ought to stay home and listen to their Lester Young records. As for anyone playing Nichols’s music "better," we don’t know, because very few people ever play it. That’s precisely the raison d’etre of the Herbie Nichols Project. Some people will never get it, but the work of the Collective goes forward, much to the thrill of those who know creative fire and inspiration when they hear it.