Any opportunity to listen to Frank Kimbrough’s trio is apt to be well worth the investment in time and concentration. It’s unlikely that you will be able to get by without making the investment, however; his is not mood music or background music, while you’re concentrating on something else. Although ever accessible, it is sometimes freeform and unfettered, other time focused and disciplined, but always thoughtful and genuine; just when you think you have it figured out, it frequently springs a surprise. If you’re willing to make the effort, it will meet you more than halfway, and it can take you to light and mystical places in an almost Zen-like way you may not have believed possible.
Kimbrough has been making distinctive, original music for many years; since arriving in New York from North Carolina in 1981, he has recorded more than a dozen albums as leader or co-leader. More importantly, he has surrounded himself with kindred spirits who share his quest and understand their importance as partners in his ventures. Ben Allison, for instance, bassist and composer of one of two selections here that are not Kimbrough originals (the other being John Barry’s “You Only Live Twice,” from the James Bond movie of that name), co-founded the thriving Jazz Composers Collective with Kimbrough a dozen years ago. In addition, Allison joined with him to found the Herbie Nichols Project, a working band with rotating personnel dedicated to keeping alive the memory and compositions of that significantly under-recognized pianist. Drummer Matt Wilson has worked with Kimbrough since 1993.
The trio format is Kimbrough’s favorite, and within it many magical things happen on this recording. The title tune is simple and bluesy in a Monkish manner, wry and piquant. “Centering,” part of a larger work commissioned by Chamber Music America’s Doris Duke Jazz Ensembles Project, is wistful and a bit nostalgic, a longing for one’s place (and a little peace) in this world. “Kid Stuff,” on the other hand, is rhythmic and dancing, light, contented and carefree. With “Ode,” dedicated to Kimbrough’s friend and mentor Andrew Hill, rhythmic freedom is explored in a context that is at once both “jazzy” and dignified. The move toward freer blowing continues with “Whirl,” which initially centers on a spunky little phrase, leading to a frenetic bass solo in 6/8 meter; then it spins off, anchored loosely by that phrase. This tune is frequently used as a set-closer. “Ghost Dance,” inspired by the music of Annette Peacock, is most appropriately named.
“Fu Bu,” says Kimbrough, is about questioning authority; it again centers on an off-kilter phrase and contains remarkable free solo work by Allison. The latter’s tune, in a laid-back, moderate tempo, has a wry wit about it, a Monkish dissonance, with unexpected chord changes and another noteworthy bass solo. The album closes satisfyingly with “Eventualities,” which starts with a pensive, out-of-tempo solo piano musing. When the rhythm section enters, Allison is given the freedom to determine chord changes from a given set of notes over a G pedal, so the harmonic possibilities are nearly unlimited. Like life, it’s all about dealing with whatever comes up.