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Frank Kimbrough: Ghost Dance

Frank Kimbrough
Frank Kimbrough (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Frank Kimbrough
Frank Kimbrough (photo: Jimmy Katz)

Ralph Ellison once defined jazz as the embodiment of an “individual assertion within and against the group.” Every true jazz moment, he wrote, “springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition.”

Frank Kimbrough isn’t the first jazz musician to illuminate these tensions—not by a long shot—but he does so with uncommon precision. For the past decade, the pianist and composer has been a pillar of jazz’s most visibly collaborative entity, the Jazz Composers Collective. He has sparked a successful excavation of the music of Herbie Nichols, indirectly serving as a “link in the chain of tradition.” He has applied his colors to the “successive canvases” of the Maria Schneider Orchestra. And he has made his “individual assertion” by faithfully adhering to the sound he calls his own.

Yet Kimbrough has, up to this point, kept a profile that could charitably be described as subtle. Although a musician’s musician, he hasn’t played on nearly as many recordings as most accomplished sidemen. He has received substantive critical acclaim but precious little public recognition. The albums under his own name are on small indie labels—and his appearances as a leader are few and far between. In an already marginalized industry, he might seem a marginal figure, a connoisseur’s choice.

That’s changing now, to some degree. This April saw the release of Lullabluebye, a trio album on the powerful independent label Palmetto. The occasion has already led to greater promotion than Kimbrough has ever received as a solo artist. But the music, and the motives behind it, hasn’t changed a bit. It’s the same contest of individual assertion that Ralph Ellison long ago envisioned. It’s the same manifestation of stubborn individuality and clear vision that prompts fellow composer and pianist Andrew Hill to hail Kimbrough as “one of the few meaningful artists of the future.”

Frank Kimbrough lives in Long Island City, Queens, across the East River from midtown Manhattan. From his stoop there’s a clear view of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, which illuminate the night sky. Up several flights of stairs is the apartment he has shared with his wife, singer and composer Maryanne de Prophetis, for the past 15 years. On the floor of their dining room, there’s a food dish, some shredded newspaper and a rabbit named Lucky. (Last summer, Kimbrough rescued the animal from a nearby field, where it had been left to starve.)

“I’ve never been in a position to be heavily promoted,” Kimbrough muses, perched on the edge of a futon in his study. “When you’re recording for small labels, that’s the way it is.” He speaks softly, in a cadence that tempers mild Southern inflections with a hint of metropolitan edge, along with a lilting jazz patois.

Born and raised in Roxboro, N.C., Kimbrough began playing the piano at three years of age. Hymns were his earliest fare. “They’d take me to church, and I’d come home and play what I’d heard,” he says, “pick it out and play it. I guess that’s how it all got started.” He studied privately with one piano teacher for several years, then with another all the way through high school.

“I always improvised,” Kimbrough says. “That was the weird thing. Because I started out playing by ear and I would just sit and make up little pieces. I remember that from when I was four or five years old. But I didn’t have a concept of jazz at that time. And growing up in rural North Carolina, where there was no record store or bookstore—I had to drive 30 miles to see a movie or to buy a book or a record or anything like that, so it was a big deal. I didn’t become exposed to jazz until I was probably around 14 or 15, and it was on PBS: the Bill Evans Trio. I remember it like it was yesterday. Because there it was, the discipline of the classical stuff that I’d been working on, and the freedom of improvising and just playing. There had always been this dichotomy between pop music and my classical studies, a very clear line. This was a great way to take the parts that I loved in each of those and channel them into one thing. That was it.”

A few years later, Kimbrough and a bass player friend left college for Chapel Hill. They crashed with a drummer at first and set out to work as musicians. “But there was nobody to work with, per se,” he says. “So we were doing our own thing right from the start: playing original music and other tunes we liked.”

After a year and a half, they moved on to Washington, D.C., where Kimbrough got his first dose of guidance from jazz elders like Shirley Horn, Maurice Robertson and Andrew Hill. (“When I first met Frank in the ’70s, he was a teenager with hair down to his waist,” Hill recalls.) There were also musicians of his own generation—like drummer Steve Williams and bassist Ed Howard, with whom he often gigged in trio. Then in 1981, he moved again.

“When I came to New York,” Kimbrough says, “I had everything I owned in a little four-seat sedan. A friend gave me a ride up here; we probably unloaded the car in five minutes. I had three hundred bucks in my pocket and no prospects.” He laughs ruefully. “After one year here I was so broke I couldn’t get on the subway. I had not 75 cents to my name. I decided that my project was going to be to transcribe a bunch of Annette Peacock’s tunes. They were really slow and really dark. And so that’s what I did. For about a week or 10 days or something, it was the only thing I did. Because I had been listening to these tunes for a while and I really loved them and I just wanted to get them down. So I spent all that time doing that—and man, that was the lowest point of my life.”

In 1985, Kimbrough entered the Jacksonville Jazz Festival’s Great American Jazz Piano Competition. “I remember I was living on the Lower East Side. I was staring out the window, watching the building across the street burn. And this lady on the phone, this nice lady in Florida, calls to tell me I’ve been selected as a finalist. She said: ‘We’ll fly you down, it’ll be great. And don’t forget to bring your Reeboks!'” He grins, as if at a private joke. “I was just standing there going, ‘What in the world are Reeboks?’ I had no idea what she was talking about.”

Kimbrough won the competition and … “Nothing came of it,” he says, laughing.

But Kimbrough embarked on two crucial adventures at this time. The first was a solo gig at the Village Corner, a noisy piano bar on Bleecker Street. “It was six hours a night,” he says, “and sometimes it was four or five nights a week. On Friday and Saturday nights I played opposite Lance Hayward, a pianist who was 40 years my senior—and let me know it every night.”

Kimbrough would work almost exclusively at the Village Corner, playing solo, for five years. “I vowed to myself to learn a new tune every time I sat down in that room,” he says. “And I didn’t have a piano. But I’ve got a good ear. So if there was a tune on a record I wanted to learn, I’d put it on cassette and transcribe it on the couch. No piano—transcribe it, memorize it and then go into the gig and play it from memory, never having played it before. It would be the first tune of the first set, and the last tune of the last set—because if I could remember it after playing six sets, then I’ve got it. So that was my thing. And I learned a tremendous amount of music that way.”

The second major development came over the airwaves. WKCR, Columbia University’s station, broadcast a tribute to the all-but-forgotten pianist and composer Herbie Nichols. Kimbrough heard it, discovered Nichols’ music for the first time and was immediately hooked. “The music was fascinating to me. I spent hours transcribing his tunes and trying to figure out what he was doing. I really felt like I had a secret.”

Kimbrough has the capacity for obsessive immersion in music that he loves, and Nichols is by no means his only muse. He owns roughly 120 albums by Paul Bley and has a number of Andrew Hill recordings that were never issued. He feels a strong affinity with Keith Jarrett’s boundary-pushing ’70s ensembles—especially those featuring drummer Paul Motian, “one of my favorite musicians on the planet.”

It was at an early ’90s Motian show at the Village Vanguard that Kimbrough met bassist Ben Allison. It didn’t take long for the two to start playing regular sessions together, often in duo. One afternoon they played with a drummer who was working as a bike messenger at the time. “I was in the filthiest of moods,” Jeff Ballard remembers. “But I had this session booked. I sat down and smacked the snare drum, didn’t say a word. Both those guys just immediately started playing. And all of that bad vibe just lifted.” After playing for two or three hours, Kimbrough went home, picked up the phone and immediately booked studio time, “because I knew that this was a very special thing.” Much of the resulting music would appear years later on an album called Chant (Igmod).

At roughly this time, Allison was beginning to organize the Jazz Composers Collective, which he envisioned as a coalition of simpatico players dedicated to furthering the development and performance of original music. “Ben called me with this idea, and I said, ‘Sounds great,'” Kimbrough says. Allison remembers it slightly differently: “At the very beginning he was hesitant about it. His initial reaction to me was, ‘I’m not really a joiner.'”

Maybe not, but Kimbrough did join both the Collective and, in the following spring, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. “At that point,” he says, “I wasn’t doing the solo gigs anymore. I was tired of playing alone. I was tired of playing in restaurants.” Schneider’s band was a Monday night fixture at a club called Visiones in Greenwich Village. “We did five years there,” Kimbrough says. “For the first two years, I would come home from the gig and lie here, right here, and stare at that ceiling until five o’clock in the morning. It was like an adrenaline rush.”

Schneider describes being similarly wowed: “Frank would create these improvised introductions and transitions that were just unbelievable. Sometimes I’d listen to this stuff and say, ‘This is a composition.’ And they were totally different every single night. He never repeated himself, ever. And we played five years of Monday nights, revisiting a lot of the same music. He would take these solos on specific pieces of mine, which were completely open. He could go anywhere. It blew me away. It still does.” Kimbrough continues to play with Schneider’s band, which will release its fifth album in July.

He’s also, of course, still with the Jazz Composers Collective, which has thrived now for a dozen years. Its core members—Allison and Kimbrough, saxophonists Ted Nash and Michael Blake and trumpeter Ron Horton—have been responsible for some of the most consistently creative albums of the past decade. Kimbrough has appeared on a number of them, most recently Horton’s Subtextures (Fresh Sound New Talent) and Allison’s Buzz (Palmetto). In mid-April he played on almost every night of a weeklong Jazz Composers Collective Festival, held for the fourth straight year at New York’s Jazz Standard.

Noticeably absent from this year’s festival was the Herbie Nichols Project, one of the Collective’s most visible successes. Debuting in 1992, this ensemble carried Kimbrough’s preoccupation to its logical extreme. Working at first from his transcriptions, the group came to interpret and perform many songs that Nichols never recorded—a byproduct of some digging by Horton in the Library of Congress archives. In the years since its formation, the group has been awarded grants, released three acclaimed albums, toured extensively and brought far greater attention to Nichols’ legacy. When producer Michael Cuscuna reissued Nichols’ Blue Note recordings in a definitive three-disc set, he enlisted Kimbrough and Allison to write the liner essay.

In lieu of the Nichols band, this year’s Collective Festival saw the debut of Lucky Charms—a group named not after Kimbrough’s rabbit, but rather the underrated saxophonist Lucky Thompson. The festival also included a CD release night for Kimbrough’s trio.

“Whatever the pathway is that exists between musicians when they’re playing together,” says Allison, “that pathway with Frank is wide, wide open. Almost scarily wide open.” In a similar vein, Ballard, who played not only on Chant but also its successor Quickening (OmniTone), emphasizes, “With Frank and Ben, it’s some of the most effortless music I play.” Matt Wilson, who assumes drumming duties on Lullabluebye, notes that Kimbrough “allows the music to breathe, opening up the sound of the band.”

Openness is a leitmotif of Kimbrough’s music; his fellow musicians invariably use the word, or some variation, to describe his sound. It’s a characterization that the pianist himself supports. “I love space in music, and I wonder if it’s not partly a result of growing up in a quiet place.”

For a few years he led a quartet called Noumena, with saxophonist Scott Robinson, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Tony Moreno, which took ethereality to the outer limits. (The band’s self-titled album on Soul Note began with a track called “Air.”) What balances his current trio is the deeply earthy bass playing of Allison, which, as Kimbrough says, “keeps me tethered.” He elaborates: “I don’t think of myself as a groove player. But with Ben in the band, sometimes I become one. So he’s a nice counterbalance: I like space and overtones and sustained things, and he likes exactly the opposite.”

As a bandleader, Kimbrough values the art of playing “naturally”—unhindered by conventional mandates of form. That isn’t to say he’s a free player, but that he prefers to let a song fulfill its own terms. “For instance, the kinds of blues that I find fascinating are the blues where changes occur where they need to, rather than in strict four-bar phrases.” It’s an elastic property shared, he says, by Ornette Coleman and Howlin’ Wolf alike. “It’s very folk, very blues. It’s not produced-sounding; it’s not perfect. It’s like the grain of sand that makes the pearl. Some people aren’t looking for pearls; they’re just looking to get it over with. I like to look for pearls. And it takes that grain of sand sometimes.”

Lullabluebye includes more than a few instances of this principle in action. “Whirl” is a free-bop ditty with a fast-flurrying line; during the solo section, the trio performs an interpretive dance, phasing in and out of various tempos. “Ode” finds Kimbrough gently abstracting a handsome theme. And “Ghost Dance” shimmers with quietude, its plaintive dissonance and patient cadence combining for an appropriately haunting effect. There are more grounded moments, too—like a lackadaisically bluesy title track, and a lilting bossa nova rendition of John Barry’s theme from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Whatever the material, the album’s common element is an aura of deep mystique—a trait Kimbrough shares with the likes of Hill, Jarrett and Bley. Like those personal heroes, he’s a nonidiomatic player, fiercely resistant to quotes or handy turns of phrase.

He’s also, like them, an overwhelmingly melodic improviser, even when wandering rich harmonic terrain. “There’s this song on his new album where the melody is an augmented triad that keeps happening again and again,” Schneider marvels, playing the three-note figure from Kimbrough’s ballad “Centering” on her piano. “It’s the same notes over and over again throughout the piece, but the harmony keeps changing, and it makes those notes sound like different notes. It’s like an Escher painting: You’re walking in circles, but you don’t realize it because the harmony makes it feel like you’re going in a spiral. He’s a harmonic master.” Perhaps even more remarkable is Kimbrough’s heartrendingly lyrical solo, evocative in spirit of Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul.”

There’s no question that Lullabluebye embodies a crystallization of Kimbrough’s art, but the pianist maintains that it’s no greater a representation than any of his other recordings. Listen to Saturn’s Child and The Willow (OmniTone), his collaborations with vibraphonist Joe Locke, and you’ll witness his nimble sensitivity in action. Hear his contribution to Ted Nash’s Still Evolved (Palmetto) and you’ll encounter his main virtue as a sideman, a masterfully subtle support. Quickening, released in 2003, was actually recorded in 1998: “But it sounds like it was recorded yesterday, to me,” Kimbrough says. “If you listen to the first recording I ever did that never came out, in 1981, you’d hear it there too. I’ve wanted the same thing from music the whole time. I know what I want. It’s just a matter of finding the right people to play it with.”

After years of searching, Kimbrough has clearly matched up with the right people. And he has reconciled the contradictory impulses of establishing a voice, seeking a connection with history, and satisfying the needs of a collective entity. If, as Ellison asserted, “the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it,” Kimbrough is happily lost, and found. Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).