Frank Kimbrough has gotten attention for his fine work with the Herbie Nichols Project, and has been a mainstay of Maria Schneider’s big band for some time. Hearing him in the trio context affords further evidence of considerable abilities. Kimbrough’s affinity for unobvious harmonic and structural devices may be related to his study of Nichols, but the two men most often evoked are Andrew Hill and Paul Bley. While there is never any doubt that we are in the presence of an original voice, Kimbrough has learned tricks that I associate with Bley, like tying together seemingly unrelated bits of improvised melody and leaving a pause while you mull it over. He also is the only musician I have heard who has figured out anything of Hill’s thinking.
We could have hoped for a whole generation of pianists working these fertile grounds, but even if we had been so lucky, I think this record would stand out. One thing that may reflect Nichols’ influence is a particularly wide range of feeling and approach in the compositions here (including three collective creations by the trio). Hill, by contrast, manages to make even calypsos feel anxious. Still more impressive is the way Kimbrough adjusts his improvisational stance to match the pieces, from the fragmented abstractions on Ornette’s Feet Music to the shifting kaleidoscopic lines of the closing “Motility.”
Ben Allison and Jeff Ballard keep getting your attention. Ballard is as light and deft as Motion or Altschul in this context, but even quirkier, and Allison doesn’t let the responsibility of keeping things grounded keep him from being surprising. I like every track but will single out the ambitious “Ancestors,” where the rhythm team practically play lead (ß la “Neffertiti”), as being especially gutsy.
Kimbrough has yet to deliver the follow-up Nichols CD we were promised, but at this point I’m looking forward equally to more like this one.
Definitely a pianist to watch.