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Eric T. Johnson: Herbie Nichols, Volume 1

Eric T. Johnson provides a solid tribute to the sorely neglected pianist-composer on Herbie Nichols, Vol. 1 (Summit). Like Thelonious Monk, Nichols didn’t write lightweight, predictable songs, and Johnson capably handles the sometimes ungainly (by standard bop contexts) harmonic structure, odd lines, unusual time and other challenges presented by such pieces as “It Didn’t Happen,” “Shuffle Montgomery” and “Step Tempest.” And to do so on guitar is especially noteworthy. These compositions don’t always offer the customary space needed for dynamic, lengthy solos, and bassist Bob Nieske and drummer Nat Mugavero often must operate in a slightly different fashion. They must also adapt while accompanying Johnson and/or trumpeter Phil Grenadier and tenor saxophonist George Garzone, who join the trio on several pieces. Some songs, especially “Shuffle Montgomery” or “Crisp Day,” should also induce listeners to pay closer attention to Nichols’ unusual writing style. Johnson’s mastery of Nichols’ works reveals more about his musical talents than a host of solos. He smartly fit his playing to the occasion, sometimes becoming more introverted, other times more animated. Herbie Nichols, Vol. 1 should generate renewed interest in this fine artist’s tunes and get more plaudits for Johnson as well.

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