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Rediscovering Herbie Nichols

By Ed Hazell

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  The list of neglected geniuses in jazz includes no more tragic figure than pianist Herbie Nichols. A composer and soloist of undeniable brilliance, he released only three albums in his lifetime and died practically unknown, in 1963, at the age of 44. Posthumous fame came in the early '90s, when Mosaic Records dusted off his old Blue Note LPs and unearthed another three albums' worth of previously unreleased material. The resulting box set probably did more than any other single effort (including earlier tributes by Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg and saxophonist Steve Lacy) to spread the word of this overlooked jazz giant.

Blue Note will reissue The Complete Recordings of Herbie Nichols on four CDs this fall, but two new releases do more than recirculate old material. Trombonist Roswell Rudd's The Unheard Herbie Nichols Vol. 1 (CIMP) brings to light seven previously unrecorded Nichols tunes. It's an unprecedented cache of material, comparable to finding new van Gogh canvases or unpublished Kafka short stories, and his trio make the best of a historic opportunity. Another previously unrecorded Nichols composition ("Trio") surfaces on Love Is Proximity (Soul Note), from the Herbie Nichols Project, a quintet of young New Yorkers who display a genuine understanding and appreciation of Nichols's work.

Rudd's analysis of the compositions in the liner notes to his CD makes the intellectual case for Nichols as a composer of tremendous skill and ingenuity. But there's more to Nichols's work than unusual phrase lengths and challenging chords. In his marvelously structured waltz, "Love, Gloom, Cash, Love," for example, he deepens the emotional impact in each successive section: the tune is by turns ironic, sad, angry, and wistful.

A co-conspirator of John Tchicai, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, and other New York firebrands of the '60s, Rudd all but disappeared from jazz during periods of his life, and he isn't exactly widely recorded himself. So The Unheard Herbie Nichols isn't just a historic milestone for those who love the music of the late pianist, it's a rare chance to hear one of the great trombonists of the past 30 years in top form.

As a friend and collaborator of Nichols, Rudd has keen insight into the structures of the compositions and their extramusical meaning. He gives "Prancin' Pretty Woman" a tone of knowing amusement, enlivening the lusty blues phrases with come-hither slurs and approving hoots. On the other hand, his deliberately paced, unaccompanied rendition of "One Twilight" enhances the singing stillness of the writing with a vulnerable, nostalgic improvisation that also manages a little bluster to keep things balanced. Guitarist Greg Millar and drummer John Bacon Jr. are respectful accompanists who give selfless support to the ensemble improvising and Rudd's loving arrangements. Best of all, Rudd still has more than 20 unheard Nichols compositions -- bequeathed to him by the pianist on his deathbed -- left to record.

A body of work as complex as Nichols's takes time to master. The members of the Herbie Nichols Project -- pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonist Ted Nash, trumpeter Ron Horton, bassist Ben Allison, and drummer Jeff Ballard -- have devoted more than 10 years to that task, and it shows. Nichols rarely heard his tunes played by horns, and he never recorded with them, so the arrangements on Love Is Proximity are acts of sympathetic imagination to begin with. More important, they capture the delicate tone of each tune. The arrangement of "Spinning Song" encapsulates the complexities and qualifications of Nichols's portrait of bohemian life.

But the way the band use the tunes to tell their own stories is what makes this album more than an example of hip repertoire selection. On "Amoeba's Dance," the lines of pianist Kimbrough actually do push and prod, advance and retreat, in an amoeba-like way. On the title track, trumpeter Horton improvises with great attention to the overall shape of his statement. The variety of his phrases and timbre is both surprising and beautiful. Nash's saxophone playing is just as impressive, especially his use of growls, slurs, and split tones to color the jagged contours and hairpin twists of his lines during the bustling group improvisation on "Trio."

The neglect that Herbie Nichols suffered in his lifetime seems more cruel than the open scorn endured by other innovators. But through the efforts of musicians like Rudd and the Herbie Nichols Project, he's beginning to get the attention he deserves. His memory, it seems, will be better served than the man himself was in life.

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