Frank Kimbrough Trio: Live at Kitano

In a perfect world, all piano trio albums would be recorded live in an intimate club like Kitano in Manhattan. The best studio recordings render a credible imitation of a musical event. Recordings like Live at Kitano contain the thing itself.

Of course, a great live piano trio album requires more than the right setting and a skilled engineer (here, celebrated jazz photographer Jimmy Katz). It requires a pianist willing to open his innermost self to an audience and to then craft an evening as a shared experience. It also requires a special bassist and drummer (here, Jay Anderson and Matt Wilson).

In his brief liner notes, Frank Kimbrough says that this music unfolded with “no rehearsals, no set lists and little discussion … beforehand.” The flow begins with an original, “Helix,” a simple eight-bar melody and counterline that cycles on itself like a ritual and sets the night’s aura. We in the audience participate in the journey, and understand why Oscar Pettiford’s “Blues in the Closet” is next. Kimbrough says its first notes came to him “out of nowhere”; the moment needed a forthright proclamation. Then Paul Motian’s “Arabesque,” an incantatory fixation, returns us to the rapt atmosphere of “Helix.” Then Andrew Hill’s “Dusk” changes the tone, with its jagged, ambiguous fragments. We follow the trio into Ellington’s “The Single Petal of a Rose,” which contains all the modes that preceded it: lyricism, exploration, subtle tension.

The evening does not so much build as deepen, and arrives at “Lover Man,” something iconic and timeless that, in Kimbrough’s lingering meditation, draws everyone in the room into a bond of communal emotion. This is an album for people who believe that, under the right hands, the piano is the instrument that can come closest to tracing the tides of human thought and feeling.