There is a fascinating duality on these two CDs. Pianist Frank Kimbrough is the breed of artist who is so versatile, so exploratory that he can sound like George Winston on steroids one moment and Keith Jarrett the next. That's how different these CDs are in their approach to contemporary jazz. The Willow is bucolic and tends to be timeless; Quickening hard-edged and very much New York today. Taken together, they form a portrait of the artist ready to explode in all directions at once.
Kimbrough, one of the founding fathers of New York's Jazz Composers Collective, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, teamed up with a kindred soul, vibraphonist Joe Locke, for The Willow. While it is basically a duo effort, there is some valuable input from reed player Tim Ries and percussionist Jeff Ballard.
But there is one pervasive problem on The Willow. Despite the fact that Kimbrough and Locke have been working together on and off for 20 years and display a strong rapport, they produce a heaviness in their combined sound that makes one long for the lightness of John Lewis and Milt Jackson. It can be heard on "Just Suppose" and even more so on "Pick Up Sticks," where Locke's marimba tends to get overpowered. By way of contrast, Ries' soprano sax emerges so clearly against the thick bottom sound. "Broken Toy" reveals how instinctively Kimbrough and Locke anticipate each other's phrasing. It is a graceful melody with unexpected changes. It sounds at times they've dispensed with bar lines, but actually they are so together. The title tune is an elegant line by Maria Schneider, with piano and vibes in unison against an overdubbed reed obbligato.
Clearly the most beautiful song on The Willow is Kimbrough's "For Duke." It lies so well and so gracefully, providing a natural segue to Quickening, where Kimbrough repeats the tune in a trio setting. On this CD he is backed by bassist Ben Allison and drummer Jeff Ballard. The contrast supports Kimbrough's own contention that "the piano, bass and drums trio has been my favored mode of expression," which is obvious from the opening phrases of the title tune. Kimbrough is not "Locked" in by the ringing reverberations of a vibraphone and he luxuriates in that total freedom, sculpturing bits and pieces of phrases, challenging his longtime colleagues to follow the leader. They not only follow, they take Kimbrough to unexpected heights, everyone responsive to changes in dynamic shadings.
Best example: "Chant," which sounds like a series of interrupted montunos. It's Ballard's moment to shine and he provides a fertile foundation for Kimbrough. "Clara's Room" is a gentle waltz that evolves into decreasingly gentle swing and underscores the melodic inventiveness of Allison, who then turns "Svengali" with a tango ostinato.
The free funkiness of "TMI" and the jet-propelled explorations of "Ancestor" emphasize Kimbrough's point that his medium is indeed the trio.