Recording of October 2021: Kimbrough

Various Artists: Kimbrough
Fred Hersch, Helen Sung, Craig Taborn, Dan Tepfer, Gary Versace, piano; Ben Allison, Jay Anderson, Rufus Reid, bass; Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, guitar; Ted Nash, Joe Lovano, Danny McCaslin, Scott Robinson, Alexa Tarantino, Immanuel Wilkins, reeds; Dave Douglas, Kirk Knuffke, trumpets; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Olivia Chindamo, vocals; Billy Drummond, Clarence Penn, Matt Wilson, drums; 44 others.
Newvelle/Bandcamp. Elan Mehler, prod.; Marc Urselli, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Frank Kimbrough was one of the most beloved figures in jazz and the most puzzlingly unsung among the great jazz musicians of our time. When he died on December 30, 2020, at the age of 64, there was much mourning among his colleagues—which explains why, over a three-day period this past May, it was possible to corral 67 of them to cover 58 of his compositions, without pay, for this download-only album. The proceeds will fund a scholarship in his name at Juilliard, where he taught. The good cause aside, the $20 download charge is crazy cheap for five and a half hours of music from some of New York's finest jazz musicians.

Kimbrough was best known as the pianist in Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra and, next to that, as co-leader (with bassist Ben Allison) of the Jazz Composers' Collective, which covered and rearranged obscure tunes by Herbie Nichols, among others. This may explain why his talents as a composer went underappreciated, a slight this collection should rectify.

I've been following Kimbrough since he started recording in the late 1980s, yet even I hadn't grasped the scope or depth of his compositions: His friend and frequent bandmate, Ron Horton, found 90 original works in Frank's files. Nor would I have guessed, before listening to the nearly five dozen compiled here (three of them played twice in different ways), that so many—certainly the majority—would merit the status of jazz standard, which is how the musicians treat them here. Kimbrough had a knack for crafting inner voices on the piano, which in his own bands (mainly trios and quartets) made larger ensembles unnecessary; he knew how to embellish a harmony so that the keyboard bloomed with the richness of an orchestra. This knack also made him an ideal mainstay for an orchestra such as Schneider's.

His strength, in playing and writing, was as a balladeer, but his songs in that vein were more complex than most ballads in harmonic structure and in mood. They could be sweeping or subtle, tempestuous or reflective, or all those things and more.

The musicians on this album—from four generations, assembled in 55 combinations (mostly trios, quartets, and quintets)—consist, in large part, of those who played with Kimbrough over time. Some of his most frequent collaborators—Allison, Horton, Scott Robinson, Ben Monder, and Donny McCaslin—are featured on at least five songs each. But several notable musicians who rarely, if ever, played with him also showed up for a few tracks, including Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, Craig Taborn, Billy Drummond, Rufus Reid, and, in a lovely solo-piano cover of "Reluctance," Fred Hersch.

Some omnibus albums cram the best stuff up front; the longer you listen, the worse it gets. Not the case with this marathon. Hersch's solo, for instance, is Track 50. One of my favorite pieces on the album, "Lucent," with Scott Robinson tracing the elusively bouncy melody on tenor sax, is Track 53. So listen to the whole thing. Surprises abound all over.

Not every piece is a gem (what composer wrote 58 gems?), and on some tracks the musicians don't know where to take their solos and so simply take them out, which isn't where they belong. But such self-indulgences are rare. The remarkable thing, given the swift gathering of so many musicians and the limited time for rehearsals and retakes, is that nobody's phoning it in. They're all giving it their all, and with such surefootededness, you'd think the tunes had been in their playbooks for years. Maybe they will be in the years to come.

The sound quality is very good—vivid, balanced, dynamic, warm but not too warm—another astonishment, given how many variations (in the size of ensembles, types of instruments, and styles of players) passed through New York's EastSide Sounds studio over a three-day span that must have been head-spinning. Kudos to Marc Urselli, a frequent engineer for Elan Mehler's Newvelle recording dates.

In short, this is a treat, a pleasure, a heartfelt tribute, a must-hear.—Fred Kaplan

Allen Fant's picture

Thank You for the review, as always, FK.
Keep listening and reviewing Jazz.

Jim C.'s picture

If anything, FK undersells the sound quality. This is some of the most vivid and immediate recorded sound I've ever heard in my living room.

Pittiplatsch's picture

Where is the source for download or did I miss omething in the review?