The best pianists play with a lyricism that makes fast pieces feel like ballads and an incisiveness that makes ballads feel chiseled from stone. Solstice is a ballads album, but not one thing about it is soft. It may be the best recording Frank Kimbrough has made.
A key to its realization is repertoire. Most jazz musicians today want to play their own stuff, whether they are good composers or not; the rest do standards. Kimbrough does neither. He plays one original, the tense, intriguing “Question’s the Answer.” Then he chooses six pieces from distinguished composers who are known—but only within the insular world of jazz—as conjurors of magic. Each song has a necessary place in the enveloping atmosphere of this album, which should only be played after midnight.
“Albert’s Love Theme,” by Annette Peacock, was written for that loud, brave warrior Albert Ayler. It is dead slow and quiet, a bare outline of deep feeling. Kimbrough allows Peacock’s open spaces to prevail. Paul Motian’s “The Sunflower” is made from asymmetrical fragments, scattered across an austere landscape, like runes. Carla Bley’s “Seven” is as simple as a lullaby, except that it refuses to resolve. Over and over Kimbrough makes unexpected, revelatory note choices that require the listener to reimagine the song.
The only traditional standard is “Here Come the Honey Man,” from Porgy and Bess. It is often done as a slow, dreamy interlude within Gershwin’s opera. Kimbrough turns it into something stark and uncertain, something devastating in its longing. The wistful melody evaporates and reappears like an incantation of hope, barely sustained until it falls away. As always on this album, the restless stirrings of bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jeff Hirshfield pull against Kimbrough’s storyline, suggesting alternate meanings.