Jazz Composers Collective at 20

Photo: Lourdes Delgado

All this week, the Jazz Standard in New York will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Jazz Composers Collective, the brainchild of five musicians who formed five distinct bands: the personnel would remain the same, but each player would lead his own band and compose all of its music.

Both concepts were unusual at the time: the continuity of players and the insistence on original compositions. Back then, jazz musicians rotated in and out of bands, not the other way around; and the emphasis was on covering standards or blowing improvisations.

And the players, then in their late-20s to mid-30s, were top-notch (from L–R in photo): Michael Blake; Ron Horton, trumpet; Ted Nash, reeds; Ben Allison, bass; and Frank Kimbrough, piano. All are now staples of the city's jazz scene; Allison, Kimbrough and Nash (the de facto leaders even then) are renowned leaders on their own. They still play together now and then, though with steadily less frequency–which is why this week's festival at the Standard is such a treat: 11 bands featuring at least some of the original members, a few of them all back together again.

In its instrumentation, the original ensemble was a conventional jazz quintet; but its music was anything but. The composers combined rhythms and colors from all over the jazz bandwidth, sprinkled occasionally with a third-world spice (an oud, a kora, odd time-signatures). This eclecticism too is now the norm, but, again, it wasn't in the early 1990s.

After a while, they branched out, most notably into the Herbie Nichols Project, a passionate quest of Kimbrough and Allison, in particular, doing yeoman's research into the archives of Herbie Nichols, an unjustly neglected great pianist and composer of the early 1950s (a peer of Monk who, like him, made a few albums for Blue Note in the early '50s but never climbed into the mainstream), and arranging his pieces for the JCC.

All three of the Herbie Nichols Project albums are worth getting: Love Is Proximity (1997), Dr. Cyclops' Dream (2000), and Strange City (2001).

Most of the Collectives' CDs were released under Ben Allison's name, They're all spirited, inventive, with heady harmonies and a strange but infectious sort of swing: Medicine Wheel (1998), Third Eye (1999), Riding the Nuclear Tiger (2001), and Peace Piece (2002). The sound quality is quite good on all of them as well.

Kimbrough, perhaps the most underrated of today's top-flight jazz pianists, has put out several good albums under his own name, most notably Chant (with Allison and Jeff Ballard), Play (a trio date that includes Paul Motian on drums), and especially Air, a stellar solo work. He's also the longstanding pianist in Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra.

Nash, who now plays in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra headed by Wynton Marsalis, is best heard as a leader on Sidewalk Meeting and Still Evolved.

If you can't make it to some of the Jazz Standard sets (the calendar is here, buy some of these albums.

ken mac's picture

Caught Frank Kimbrough's fine quartet at Jazz Standard last night. What an excellent gig! The small but intense crowd braved the weather to enjoy the performances of Lewish Nash, Jay Anderson, Steve WIlson and KImbrough, who was in heaven. His compostions are laced with touches of Monk and Jarrett and the collective group expression was simply superb. A great night of music.