Love, Gloom, Cash, Love
Avenue Jazz/Bethehem R2 76690
Like an additional couple of commandments appended to the original 10, this classic reissue returns to circulation the final recorded work of pianist Herbie Nichols (1919-1963).
Listening to these slightly off centre tunes, which have been fitfully available since they were recorded in 1957, it's hard to fathom why this less than 42 minutes of music plus what is now a three CD set on Blue Note make up Nichols entire recorded legacy.
A super straight intellectual who was as impressive a stylist as he was a composer, for some reason Nichols' talents were never recognized in his lifetime. Relegated to obscurity beneath even an underground that accepted Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, Nichols made his living accompanying second rank Swing and Dixieland musicians in dingy New York clubs, when he wasn't providing piano backup for singing female impersonators or Grade Z rock'n'rollers.
Yet his concept was so advanced that when he jammed with avant gardists-to-be trombonist Roswell Rudd and saxophonist Archie Shepp he refocused their energies towards more original avenues. Furthermore, Nichols original LPs, which were such poor sellers that he didn't recorded in the last six years of his life, so impressed such seminal thinkers as Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg that some of today's European ways of looking at improvisation couldn't be imagined without him.
Right now, Rudd, guitarist Duck Baker and a group of New York performer/composers calling themselves The Herbie Nichols Project have all rearranged Nichols' treasure trove of tunes for different instruments on different CDs.
Beautifully remastered, the prototypes here sound even more gorgeous. Nichols, who was also a poet and writer, was such an exceptional musical thinker that the very shape of the tunes seems to move them forward on their own. Each stands up like a perfectly constructed Faberge egg, without a note, tone or cluster out of place,
Not that they're effete or fussy though. How could they be with such trio partners? Drummer Dannie Richmond, today best known as Charles Mingus' long time right hand, lays down a steady, yet powerful beat. Bassist George Duvivier, then one of the busiest session men in New York, as well as an old friend of Nichols, merely has to suggest a rhythm and the music flows. Plus every nuance of Nichols keyboard skill is amplified and crystal clear. He seems to know keyboard nuances as well as Art Tatum, but doesn't overdo the decoration. Quirky as Monk, at times, but he operates so abstrusely that the extraordinary piano constructions don't bring attention to themselves.
You can notice his skill most obviously on the three standards here; Nichols wrote the other seven tunes. Even the two familiar ones closely associated with Frank Sinatra -- "Too Close For Comfort" and "All The Way" -- are reharmonized in such a way that they take on a life of their own. Outwardly, though not wrenchingly romantic, Nichols' own compositions such as the title track and "Infatuation Eyes" could have become the standards along the lines of "Round Midnight". That they didn't is another mystery.
At a time when today's best-known jazzman can release eight (!) CDs in a single year then add turn around and add a seven (!) CD box of live recordings from the Village Vanguard shortly afterwards, the story of Nichols lack of recognition and paucity of product is even more tragic and frustrating.
Yet, perhaps, he summed up the situation best himself. In the original liner notes to this set he says: "I'm a guy who's been broke all my life and music is a release for me...My desire is dig beneath the surface and get the feel of what's actually happening".
Maybe the jazz world wasn't ready for "what's actually happening" in 1957. It certainly can revel in it now.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Too Close For Comfort 2. Every Cloud 3. Argumentative 4. Love, Gloom, Cash, Love 5. Portrait of Ucha 6. Beyond Recall 7. All The Way 8. 45° Angle 9. Infatuation Eyes 10. S'Crazy Pad
Personnel: Herbie Nichols (piano); George Duvivier (bass); Dannie Richmond (drums)
May 15, 2001