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Jazz Composers Collective Concert Series

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Herbie Nichols Project/Ted Nash Double Quartet New School Jazz Performance Space, New York City November 18, 1999
The house is packed here at downtown Manhattan's New School Jazz Performance Space. Approximately two hundred people have gathered to hear the Herbie Nichols Project and the Ted Nash Double Quartet, two bands from the roster of the Jazz Composers Collective, a support network for like-minded jazz musicians. At the door is a student recruit handing out programs with band member bios and a listing of the evening's selections. This is very much a recital, not a club gig. The Collective takes presentation seriously, you see. There's an aura of intelligence surrounding their music, their events, even their promotional literature. But their seriousness is not to be confused with stuffiness. Saxophonist Ted Nash may be wearing a suit, but bassist Ben Allison is wearing a T-shirt.
Nash, Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and drummer Tim Horner are in both of tonight's bands. Rounding out the Herbie Nichols Project are Ron Horton on trumpet and fluegelhorn and Billy Drewes on tenor and soprano saxophones. (Drewes is subbing for Michael Blake, who plays on the group's new CD.) The other half of Nash's Double Quartet is actually a quintet, and an unusual one for jazz: Miri Ben-Ari and Joyce Hamann on violins, Ron Lawrence on viola, Tomas Ulrich on cello, and Erik Charlston on vibes and percussion.
In his other life, Nash graces the sax section of Wynton Marsalis's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Marsalis in turn graces two selections on Nash's new CD, Rhyme and Reason (Arabesque). Contributing to the anticipation in the room is the fact that Marsalis will be the featured guest on the same two selections here tonight. Loosely speaking, Marsalis and the LCJO tend toward traditionalism while the JCC favors an avant-garde sensibility. But the presence of Marsalis and Nash in each other's groups illustrates just how slippery these categories can be. We're going to witness a meeting of the minds, an encounter between disparate but entirely compatible jazz philosophies.

Kimbrough and Allison formed the HNP to honor pianist and composer Herbie Nichols, who died in obscurity in 1963. The group has recorded two CDs on the Soul Note label, 1996's Love Is Proximity and 1999's Dr. Cyclops' Dream. The first disc primarily features material which Nichols himself recorded. But the new release contains something quite novel: tunes and/or fragments of tunes that were unearthed in lead sheet form and have never seen the light of day until now. As Allison explains from the stage, "A lot of this music has no precedent."

The group, therefore, had little choice but to grant itself wide creative liberties in preparing this music. Allison freely admits that he and his bandmates brought their own compositional, orchestrational, and aesthetic sensibilities to bear on Nichols's work. "We have no right to do this, we're just doing it," says Allison. "No one's asking us to do it," he continues, and before he can finish the thought, Nash grins and interjects, "but no one's asking us to stop."

Nash, Horton, and Drewes begin the set by playing "Crisp Day" and "Blue Chopsticks" simultaneously, i.e., two horns play one melody while the third horn plays the other. This juxtaposition appears on Love Is Proximity as an arrangement for the full band; here the horns perform it alone as a brief and irreverent fanfare. Then Allison sets up "Swan Song," an infectious melody which the band superimposes over a slightly ominous 5/4 vamp. Drewes, Horton, and Horner solo.

Off to an inspiring start, the set continues with the fabulous, Mingus-like "Bartok" and the dark, opaque ballad "Dr. Cyclops' Dream." Kimbrough and Horton lay out for a bluesy tenor battle on "Beyond Recall." "Valse Macabre" features the arresting front line of Nash's alto flute, Horton's fluegelhorn, and Drewes's soprano. And the up-tempo finale, "It Didn't Happen," contains a dramatic highlight: The band drops out while Drewes blows soprano over knotty changes laid down by Kimbrough. Drewes's soprano sound is breathy and tactile; you can practically reach out and touch it. Drewes and Nash also bring richly complementary tenor approaches to the band. Their playing is equally modern in content, but Nash's tone is bright and of Mintzer/Berg vintage, while Drewes is more old school, with a round, velvety sound.

This is a fun band to watch. One can't help but immediately notice Drewes's idiosyncratic stage presence: He plays most of the set with his left leg hiked up on a chair. Allison is unusually physical on his instrument. Nash takes his time during solos, at times displaying a likable cockiness. And across the board, the players are not merely attentive during one another's solos; they're demonstratively enthused. Heads nod and voices shout in approval, smiles light up the bandstand. In the liner notes to Love Is Proximity, Frank Kimbrough writes, "The greatest way to pay tribute to a composer is to make his music your own." The Herbie Nichols Project has done just that, and their excitement is contagious.

Despite the personnel it shares with the HNP, Nash's Double Quartet provides a very different listening experience. Nash is the sole horn, for starters. The string section and vibes provide seemingly endless tonal variations and endow the music with an intimate quality, even at its most intense. The fact that the material is wholly original makes the group's impact more personal, more moving. This is a testament to Nash's expressive capacities as a composer. Through his music, not to mention his charming on-stage banter, one truly gets a feeling for Nash as a human being.

Nash's arranging emphasizes seamless give and take between the string quartet and the jazz quartet. The strings lay out for much of the tenor solo on "Ishtar Gate," for instance, so what you hear after a series of full ensemble passages is a stark, burning jazz rhythm section. Sure, we've heard burning jazz rhythm sections before, but here it's a contrasting color, one of many at Nash's disposal. In other words, Nash achieves a kind of illusion. He makes you think you're hearing a standard jazz quartet, when in reality you're hearing much more in light of what has come before and what may come after. There's an element of suspense in this music.

The group carries on with "Spirit Dance," a heady straight-eighth latin groove with a bass line that sounds a bit like Miles's "It's About That Time" and a B section that shifts into a quick tango feel. Kimbrough and violist Ron Lawrence contribute solos, but unfortunately Lawrence can't really be heard. Nash switches to clarinet for the set's high point, an ambitious and gorgeous ballad titled "Longing." The beautiful melody is passed around from clarinet to strings and we hear solos from the vibes, cello, and piano before Nash picks the tenor back up and plays an inspired chorus. As the band holds the final chord I sense audience members fighting back tears.

Nash then brings Wynton Marsalis to the bandstand for the challenging "Apollo 9," which shifts between odd-metered latin and bright waltz feels. It's not every day you get to see Marsalis in a sideman role, on a little stage. And to hear him apply his particular style and perspective to this new, innovative music is nothing short of captivating. He and violinist Miri Ben-Ari are fiery in the solo spotlight.

Things quiet down for "The Trails," a strange piece for alto flute and strings which Nash named for what once was a communist meeting area in New York's northern Westchester County. Then Marsalis comes back up for the rousing finale, "Sisters," dedicated to Nash's two young daughters. Ben-Ari solos once again, whipping up the crowd with fleet-fingered runs and riffs. But when Marsalis begins to solo, he shifts gears entirely, playing over the breackneck swing tempo as if it were a ballad. It's an awesome display of restraint and control. Perhaps he means it as a gentle rebuke to Ben-Ari, telling her that you needn't get all hyped up just because the tempo is fast. Nash takes the hint during his own hot-blooded solo, at one point letting loose with a slow blues lick in half-time that makes Marsalis turn his head and cry out.

The work of the Jazz Composers Collective makes timeworn debates between innovators and preservationists, radicals and reactionaries, seem a million miles away. The Herbie Nichols Project is able to innovate and preserve in a single measure. Ted Nash's new music owes its existence to jazz tradition, yet is quite unlike anything you've heard before. It's clear that the members of the Collective are not up on any particular soapbox. They're here to make music. With a steadily increasing number of superb CDs and a tightly organized concert series, they're beginning to look unstoppable. On January 27, 2000, again at the New School Jazz Performance Space, they'll feature the work of saxophonist Michael Blake and an unannounced "guest composer." Don't miss it.

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