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Frank Kimbrough: Ancestors (Sunnyside)

A review of the late pianist's posthumous album, reminding us of the legend that jazz lost

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Frank Kimbrough: Ancestors
The cover of Ancestors by Frank Kimbrough

The pain of Frank Kimbrough’s sudden death on December 30, 2020 still feels fresh. His posthumous album Ancestors, recorded in June of 2017, is both wonderful to have and a reminder of what jazz lost. Kimbrough was a special artist, in his own projects (such as his monumental six-CD Monk set, Monk’s Dreams) and those of others (such as his essential role in the Maria Schneider Orchestra).

The instrumentation here is unusual: Kimbrough on piano, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, and Masa Kamaguchi on bass. Knuffke is more associated with left-of-center jazz than Kimbrough, but they were meant for each other. Kamaguchi is less known but his mindset also suits the premise of this occasion, which is to set three intuitive, selfless improvisers free in open (drummerless) space and let them flow. On Kimbrough compositions like “November” and “Jimmy G,” each sounds like he’s thinking to himself out loud while listening to, and responding to, the others. Knuffke plays lines of cryptic lyricism that seem to flower from Kimbrough’s crystalline piano forms.

Kimbrough was an artist who trusted the moment. This trio had never played a note together before the recording session. On “Waiting in Santander,” the moment calls for suspense and Kimbrough surrounds Knuffke with dense, dramatic tremolos. On “Air,” dawn breaks, and Kimbrough traces bright strands of single piano notes all through Kamaguchi’s dark throbs. The pianist created art from notes, but also from the silences between them.

Perhaps it is hindsight that gives this album its aspect of finality, of farewell, of summation. But its atmosphere of rapt contemplation culminates in an actual elegy, “All These Years,” by Kimbrough’s wife, Maryanne de Prophetis. She wrote it for her father, but it is perfect as the last movement of Ancestors, a beautiful gift that Frank Kimbrough left behind.

Learn more about Ancestors on Amazon!

Frank Kimbrough 1956–2020

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.