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Jazz Composers Collective: The Herbie Nichols Project

AAJ Staff By

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

The Herbie Nichols Project is a working, researching, and performing entity—co-led by pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison. Operating within that fertile creative aggregate known as the Jazz Composers Collective (of which Mr. Kimbrough and Mr. Allison are composers-in-residence), the HNP is devoted to presenting the music of this remarkable pianist/composer to new generations of jazz fans. However, the HNP transcends merely preserving the compositions of Mr. Nichols by arranging his works for larger ensembles and/or alternative instrumentation (Mr. Nichols only recordings were made in a trio setting). In regard to the HNP, the Jazz Composers Collective states the following: In the current ensemble—Nichols' music lives with a fresh angle. By realizing the music for horns, the ensemble guides the music in new directions.

The project has its origin in 1985 when Mr. Kimbrough began to transcribe the music of the Blue Note and Bethlehem label recordings of the Herbie Nichols piano trio. Mr. Allison became involved in 1991 and work continued until transcriptions were completed for all 38 compositions known to have been recorded. In addition to the recorded work, the HNP's repertoire contains 32 unrecorded compositions, most of which have been transcribed from original scores obtained from the Library of Congress. In 1994, the HNP was premiered via two concerts sponsored by the Jazz Composers Collective. The debut CD, Love Is Proximity, was released in March 1997. The second CD, Dr. Cyclops' Dream, was released in October 1999. Both recordings are available from the Soul Note label.

Although the Herbie Nichols Project has rotating personnel, Mr. Kimbrough, Mr. Allison, and Ron Horton (trumpet/flugelhorn) are its primary players (Mr. Horton has also been largely responsible for uncovering many of the unrecorded compositions). Both HNP recordings have featured Ted Nash (saxophone, flute, clarinet), and the latest CD includes Michael Blake (saxophones) and Tim Horner (drums—note: Jeff Ballard is drummer on the first CD). In live performance, the HNP involves a number of additional musicians (e.g., for the premiere concerts in 1994, 12 musicians were used in 16 different configurations). Among the numerous musicians who have participated in the HNP for live performances are saxophonists Donny McCaslin, Adam Kolker, and John Schroeder, drummers Mike Mazor and Matt Wilson, and guitarist Ben Monder.

Funding for the HNP has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Aaron Copland Fund, the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Mary Flagler Cary trust.

As part of this month's feature on the Jazz Composers Collective, and to help celebrate the long anticipated release of Dr. Cyclops' Dream, Frank Kimbrough, Ben Allison, Ron Horton, and Ted Nash were kind enough to share their thoughts about Herbie Nichols and his music. This interview was conducted via e-mail, from August-October 1999. (i.e., Messrs. Kimbrough, Allison, Horton, and Nash were independently interviewed for this segment of the JCC feature).

About Herbie Nichols

Herbie Nichols was born in New York City on January 3, 1919 and died on April 12, 1963, a victim of leukemia. A contemporary to both Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, Mr. Nichols has only been recognized within the past few years as a stellar composer/pianist. Despite his tragic and untimely death and the regrettable lack of recognition during his all too brief lifetime, he nevertheless leaves behind a resplendently diverse musical legacy, abounding in imagination. Mr. Nichols deftly interweaves a number of influences into a dazzling multi-dimensional array; the electrifying tingle of New Orleans Dixieland, the enchanting folk melodies of the West Indies (his parents' native land), the fiery rhythmic drive of bebop, the wondrous harmonies of Bartok. Singular in musical vision, his music continues to be proven as deserving to be identified as classic. At the time of his death, Mr. Nichols had supposedly written 170 compositions (is best known tune, "Lady Sings the Blues," was written for Billie Holiday), but only 38 were recorded. The rest (along with his poetry and other writings) were assumed to be irretrievably lost, destroyed by a flood in the basement of his father's apartment, where they had been stored, until recently when members of the Jazz Composers Collective discovered approximately 40 hitherto unknown compositions stored at the Library of Congress.

In retrospect, if nothing else is made evident, it should be abundantly clear that Herbie Nichols undying passion was to compose and play music. He was a man who reveled in both of his heritages, that as an individual human being, and that of a musician/composer, willing to draw upon the vast legacies which preceded him.

All About Jazz: Please tell AAJ about the new Herbie Nichols Project disc, Dr. Cyclops' Dream.

Ben Allison: The Herbie Nichols Project is another project of the Collective. Dr. Cyclops' Dream is our second CD, and will be out in October 1999 on Soul Note records. I think with this one we tried to bring even more of our own sensibilities of composition and arranging to bear on Herbie's music. Many of the tunes on the CD were previously unrecorded. We found a bunch of lead sheets at the Library of Congress, most were bare sketches with no indications as to tempo or dynamics. Some had no chord changes written at all. This gave us a lot of freedom (moral and otherwise) to develop the music in a more aggressive way than the first CD (Love Is Proximity, also on Soul Note). We did not want to do a tribute album.

Frank Kimbrough: These are the first recordings of Bartok, Dr. Cyclops' Dream, Swan Song, Dream Time, and I've Got Those Classic Blues. With the exception of Bartok, these compositions were found at the Library of Congress, in lead sheet form, with no indications as to tempo or dynamics.IDH and Cro-Mag at T's, although credited to Nichols, are fragments of his tunes, put together by the group either in rehearsal or in the studio, and do not actually exist as titles in Nichols' catalog of compositions. Some compositions (Dream Time, I've Got Those Classic Blues, IDH, and Cro-Mag at T's), are played as vignettes, in order to bridge longer takes and to offset heavily arranged, larger ensembles with spontaneous arrangements in smaller groupings.

AAJ: What is the most fascinating aspect of Herbie Nichols music for you?

Ron Horton: What fascinates me most about Herbie Nichols' music is that with each composition, he seemed to be striving to make modifications to the typical jazz/be-bop song "template" of the day. By varying melodic lines and intervals, harmonic chords and progressions, forms, beats within a bar, etc., it gave each of his tunes a certain uniqueness and "quirkiness," but was never done in a forced manner or to excess. I believe that he just heard it in his head that way. Of the seventy or so tunes that we are familiar with (100 more exist somewhere), there is definitely a sense of jollity and fun that is present in each of them.

Ted Nash: What is fascinating is that his music is just as strong and characteristic as Thelonious Monk's and yet he seemed to be all but completely overlooked. You can ask just about any jazz musician to play some Monk and they'll be able to come up with at least a few tunes, but ask them to play some Herbie Nichols and you'll get, most likely, a blank stare. What is it that allows a genius like this to just slip through the cracks?

FK: The most fascinating thing to me about Herbie's music is the way it integrates elements of various styles, yet remains totally unique. It's been said many times before, but the music Herbie appreciated and drew from included not only jazz, but 20th century European—classical music, Caribbean and African music as well. His compositions cover a broad range of emotions; at times humorous, at times joyful, and sometimes sad, they always bear his unmistakable stamp.

BA: I actually played a bunch of his tunes before I heard his recordings for the first time. The thing that popped into my mind when I first played his music was the question "why haven't I heard this stuff before?" It has all the elements of the music of classic and well known jazz stars; it's evocative, funky, original sounding, subtle, complex (deep), mature, personal, and just plain beautiful. So what was it about him or his music that kept him from becoming well known? I still cannot answer that question.

AAJ: What have you learned from transcribing, listening to, and performing his music?

FK: Herbie's compositions are often difficult to transcribe. Subtle changes in the way he states his melodies on record makes it almost impossible to say—this is the way he wrote it. Each time a melody appears, it may be different in terms of rhythmic placement, phrasing, or even note choices. Because he's no longer with us for consultation, and many of his original charts have been lost over the years, it's hard to figure out. Also, his music tends to be harmonically vague, but in sort of a specific way, which complicates things further when it comes to pinning things down harmonically. On his recordings, his playing was very—in the moment, and since all of his recordings were in the trio format, he was able to play fast and loose with his material. It's alive, always changing. This gives us license to use our imagination when it comes time to realize his compositions in performance, and that's where the learning comes in—trying to take the tune apart (transcription), and then put it back together our way, with respect for the integrity of the composition. Given Herbie's voracious appetite for exploration, I think he would be gratified that we're not always trying to play his music the way he necessarily would have.

Listening to Herbie's music for the first time stopped me in my tracks. The tunes, his touch, the way it grooved, the chances he took...all these things combined in a very compelling way, and I knew it was important immediately. He had the complete package. Too bad he wasn't more marketable, or that he didn't have more of an affinity for self-promotion.

Performing his music has been a tremendous learning experience, and it never stops. Our first concerts of Herbie's music in 1994 involved playing 24 compositions over two nights, with twelve musicians in 16 different configurations! Since then we've pared it down a bit, but the personnel is always revolving, so each performance is a little different from the last one, in terms of arrangements, choice of repertoire, and personnel. We've observed how different saxophonists or drummers approach the music, and which instrumentations work best for certain tunes. The recently uncovered works are especially challenging because there is no template to look to as a reference—Herbie never got a chance to record them. Sometimes the tunes are just melodies with no chord changes or dynamic markings, etc., so we experiment, drawing upon our experiences as composers, and adding our ideas to the mix in order to keep it fresh. We've learned in terms of arranging and orchestrating his tunes, trying to do something creative with them. He gives anyone performing his music a great deal to think about. You could spend hours just playing his intros! Having the privilege to perform and record his music has also taught us that people respond positively to it no matter where we go.

AAJ: If you could ask Herbie Nichols one question, what would it be?

RH: I would ask Herbie Nichols what musicians he wished he that he could have played with, but didn't have the opportunity to in his lifetime.

TN: Can I buy you a drink?

BA: "Describe what you would consider to be a successful day for you musically (creatively and business-wise)." Maybe I could gain some insight into his personality and also find an answer to the above question.

FK: If I could ask Herbie one question—what would have come next?

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