Strange City
Palmetto PM 2077

Appreciation for the work of iconoclastic composer/pianist Herbie Nichols has grown in the years since his 1963 death from leukemia at 44. Thought of during his lifetime as a fringe performer whose three trio LPs were less appealing than even Thelonious Monk's spiky work, the excellence of his compositions was only proclaimed by his friend, trombonist Roswell Rudd.

In the years since, others have come to agree with the assessment, most notably pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison, who put together this septet to perform Nichols work. This, its third CD, concentrates in the main on the pianist's unrecorded tunes, arranged for the sort of four-horns-and-rhythm-section that Nichols would have loved to use. Nichols' recorded legacy is all in the standard piano trio format.

Part of the Jazz Composers Collective, and made up of musicians who have put in time with Allison's Medicine Wheel, the Lounge Lizards, Conference Call and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO), the players here are youngish, technically fluent and capable of anything demanded by the lead sheets.

As a bonus, the arrangements, which purportedly were worked out in the studio or in performance, have enough counterpoint, call and response and steady movement in them to utilize each man's talents and certainly sound as if they were carefully crafted.

Biggest surprise is trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, who freed from the LCJO, demonstrates some Tricky Sam Nanton trombone vocalization on "Blue Shout" and outstanding plunger work on "The Happenings". The former is given a solid, funky reading, making it sound like Horace Silver's "The Preacher" and is nudged along by some horse-like whinnies from trumpeter Ron Horton. Everyone is present and accounted for on the later, with its Monkish theme and Art Blakey-style press rolls from Matt Wilson. Soprano saxophonist Michael Blake is the standout here, double-timing and squeaking glissandos like a Swing era clarinetist, without losing sight of the melody. Finally he ends up soaring over the others' melded horn riffs.

Thoughts about contemporaries of Nichols come to the fore with pieces like "Enrapture" however. Horton's floating, muted trumpet style updates Kenny Dorham and Kimbrough's light-fingered comping make you wonder why no working bandleader like Dorham, Monk, Blakey or Silver ever picked up on Nichols' output: from the evidence here it wasn't too far out for their audience. Some of it, like "Some Wandering Bushmen", may have been in odd meters and moved along at a different gait then they preferred. But, despite the title, there are overt African references here and between Allison's straightahead timekeeping and Ted Nash's long-lined, steadfast tenor solo, the piece easily sounds like the one of the catchy, repetitive lines that filled the Jazz Messengers' book.

Perhaps one of the clues is inadvertently brought forward by Kimbrough on "Karna Kangi", the sole piano trio outing. Steadily steered by Allison and Wilson, the pianist appears to take Nichols' quirky melodies and filter it through Silver's conception. Probably a technically better musician, then Nichols, as are the others here, he also appears to be inherently more conservative than a loner like Nicholas ever was.

STRANGE CITY is disc memorable for the way it unearths more of Nichols' exceptional work and, by adding horns, giving it a new resonance. Individually none of the musicians can be faulted. Collectively they would probably have been the perfect group for the pianist to have led. But could he have played among them?

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Moments Magical 2. Enrapture 3. Delights 4. Blue Shout 5. Strange City 6. Karna Kangi 7. The Happenings 8. Change of Season 9. Some Wandering Bushmen 10. Shuffle Montgomery

Personnel: Ron Horton (trumpet, flugelhorn); Wycliffe Gordon (trombone); Michael Blake (soprano saxophone); Ted Nash (tenor saxophone); Frank Kimbrough (piano); Ben Allison (bass); Matt Wilson (drums)