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Herbie Nichols Project: Dr. Cyclops, Dream

The first Herbie Nichols Project record, Love Is Proximity, was the first to use a classic quintet format and modified hard-bop approach to interpret Nichols’ music, which is what the composer had in mind all along. For the follow-up pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Ben Allison, trumpeter Ron Horton, reedman Ted Nash and drummer Tim Horner have been joined by another horn, Michael Blake, who plays tenor and soprano while Nash is heard on tenor, flute, and bass clarinet. The program will be unfamiliar to all but fanatics. “Beyond Recall”, “It Didn’t Happen”, and “Riff Primitif” are among the lesser-known tunes that Herbie actually recorded. “Valse Macabre” and “The Bebop Waltz” were first recorded by Roswell Rudd’s trio and Mary Lou Williams respectively. It is interesting that Williams, who used the title “Mary’s Waltz”, used no improvisation on either of her two early ’50s versions, one of which featured Don Byas. These were advanced players for whom even a relatively simple Nichols piece was daunting at the time.

Several pieces, including the title track and “Bartok”, the intriguing item which was reproduced in the notes to the Nichols Mosaic set, get first recordings. The approach to “Bartok” is typical of the involved process the group has used to bring some of these lead sheets to life, involving a new bridge extrapolated from the original melody. Creative instrumentation abounds. In the tour-de-force rendition of “Riff Primitif”, for instance, the horns play the melody with long rests between the phrases over drum and bass solos. Then there’s the great moment when “It Didn’t Happen” switches from a piano-soprano duet to flipped-out dixieland (with the trumpet evoking Herbie’s sometime boss in that context, Rex Stewart). All these musicians are top-flight soloists, and are at pains in the notes to let us know that they have busy musical lives outside of this most ambitious of repertory groups. But really, it takes more than parrots to sing Herbie’s tunes, and Dr. Cyclops is wonderful evidence of these players’ creativity, as well as Nichols’ genius.

Originally Published