Imagine a colorful chronology of jazz piano, starting in 1970 and concluding in the present day. Keith Jarrett marks square one: romantic, flamboyant, self-indulgent. Flash to 2002, where young Brad Mehldau combines experimentation with the genre-defying appeal of a budding pop star. Without apparent compromise, the adventurous Mehldau, just like Keith Jarrett a generation ago, has stumbled on an audience.
New York-based pianist Frank Kimbrough is situated smack-dab between the bookends–younger than Jarrett, older than Mehldau. Like both, however, he’s a stone cold, stylish virtuoso with a bit of swagger. All three musicians also share an unspoken credo: Damn the torpedoes. Their music howls.
The Roxboro native and former Chapel Hill resident moved to New York City in 1981. Even in the Big Apple, his scrappy individualism remains; Kimbrough’s fashioned a quietly remarkable career as a pianist, composer and improviser par excellence. He performs in a variety of situations, from large ensembles to solo piano, from the plush Lincoln Center to dank, smoke-tainted bars with godawful keyboards.
“I try not to play bad pianos anymore,” sighs Kimbrough. “If I have to apologize for the instrument, I’d prefer to sit home.”
Mule stubborn but artistically secure, Kimbrough works enough. A late-bloomer at the age of 45, he’s no longer a secret among the jazz cognoscenti. He placed in Down Beat magazine’s latest critics’ poll, and he’s appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. As a bandleader, he’s released two trio recordings (Chant, Lonely Woman), a cerebral live date with a quartet (Nouema) and a pair of lovely duet CDs with vibraphonist Joe Locke (Saturn’s Child, The Willow).
Despite waxing numerous recordings issued under his name, Kimbrough is perhaps better known as the piano engine that drives the sleek, Grammy-nominated big band the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and as co-leader of the Herbie Nichols Project, which dusts off the obscure songbook of the late Maestro Nichols. With three rambunctious CDs under its belt, HNP is an offshoot of the Jazz Composers’ Collective, an artist run nonprofit Kimbrough founded alongside three other musicians disenchanted with the jazz and new music scenes in the Big Apple.
In 1992, JCC members decided that rather than accepting the often-unsatisfying gigs they were being offered in noisy bars, they’d stage their own formal concerts at the comfy New School auditorium. These classy presentations featured printed programs, tiny but attentive audiences, and brand new works written by Kimbrough, bassist Ben Allison and a coterie of other fresh thinkers. Now, 11 years down the pike, the organization has established an international rep, with their shows being reviewed by The New York Times. Score one for the good guys.
On Saturday night, Kimbrough will achieve momentary local hero status when he greets old chums at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro. No doubt a few loyalists will laugh as they reminisce, recalling an edgy, high-wire piano trio called Hands. Once upon a time, young Kimbrough and that crazy combo played woolly neo-bop to a roomful of nearly nobody at the old Cat’s Cradle on Rosemary Street, just a stone’s throw from the ArtsCenter. That was nearly a quarter century ago. Remarkably, the Cradle is still alive at a new address. And so is Kimbrough.
Excited about his homecoming, Kimbrough previewed the weekend trio gig with an e-interview from his Long Island crib.
The Independent: At the ArtsCenter, you’ll be playing with drummer Al Sergel and bassist Ron Brendle. You’ve known Ron forever.
Kimbrough: My relationship with Ron goes back to 1975. Both of us were studying music at Appalachian State University in Boone. I moved in downstairs from him and we used to hang out almost every night. Over the years we’ve kept in touch and played together often. Two years ago, we recorded two CDs in one day: a duo (Autumn) and a trio (Here) with Al. Both are on Ron’s LoNote label.
You play in so many different bands. As a musician, how does your approach change from scenario to scenario?
It’s a balancing act. I’m hired for my judgment, so my job is to be myself within the context of any given situation. Each situation has its own set of demands, and since most of my associations with other musicians tend to be long-term, I’m acquainted with the aesthetic qualities of their music. I’m aware of what the composer or leader needs. It becomes a matter of “reading between the lines,” giving them what they need, yet finding a way to express myself.
JCC is almost 11 years old. In the beginning, nobody paid much attention to you. Now, the Collective is a force to be reckoned with. Can you describe any feelings of self-satisfaction?
I’m very happy to have nice things written about me. After 10 years, our book of press clippings is bulging! But I also keep in mind what I used to tell my students at NYU in some of our myth-busting sessions. “If you want to be on the cover of Down Beat,” I told them, “hire a really good press agent. If you want to be a good musician, then work hard at being a good musician.” That being said, we’ve worked really hard and hired a press agent! [sound of e-laughter.]
How often do you practice your piano playing?
I almost never practice the piano. I can get more done in my head sitting in an armchair or riding the subway. Motion, in fact, seems to facilitate my thinking about music. This may sound arrogant, so let me explain.
At one point I lived for 10 years without having a piano in the house. When I played at the Village Corner on Bleeker Street, I didn’t own a piano, but I still managed to learn a new tune every day. I’d transcribe it by ear from tape, memorize it, and then go to the gig and perform it without ever having played it before–risky, but fun. I learned hundreds of tunes this way. It was necessary, just what I needed to do in order to progress.
Then, when I finally got a piano, they couldn’t get it up the narrow stairwell to my apartment! I do have one now, but I seldom play it.
A lifelong relationship with the piano is a turbulent thing, right?
Sadly, the piano is rapidly becoming an obsolete instrument. The biggest problem is that they’re expensive, and they’re almost never properly maintained. A 9-foot Steinway costs nearly $100,000. I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll probably never own a really good instrument. I’m really picky about the instruments I play. With a few exceptions, I don’t play [electronic] keyboards; I want to hear wood and metal and real overtones, not a synthetic sound coming from a speaker. I once had a club owner offer me a gig. He had just acquired a digital piano and told me that I’d never be able to tell the difference. I just walked away.
I like the way you alter the sound of the piano by manipulating the strings. Can you describe some of your prepared piano techniques?
I’ve tried lots of things. Most of the preparations are mobile, simple things that can be inserted and removed quickly: coins, metrocards, cymbals and the like. I’ve even used fishing line with bass rosin on it, weaving it between the strings we want to play, holding the pedal down and drawing the fishing line from one side to the other. Murder on the lower back, but it sounds great.
Please rewind to the year and a half you spent in Chapel Hill. What, if anything, do you remember from those days?
It was a time of growth, discovery and serious dues paying. I was a very angry young man, having been sort of thrown out of school for playing jazz. I felt misunderstood, but all that anger fueled a desire to do what I really wanted to do, that “I’ll show them” kind of attitude. I doubt I could have stuck it out here in New York without having that fuel.
I also have very fond memories of my time in Chapel Hill: breakfasts at Ye Olde Waffle Shop, sneaking into the music building at UNC for after-hours sessions and the excitement when the phone rang for a gig. Moments like that are absolutely priceless.
The number of items in Kimbrough’s expansive discography, which now includes 35 entries, has just grown by three. FK comments on his latest recordings.
The Willow (Omnitone). “My new CD with Joe Locke contains the peaceful feeling we tried to convey on our previous recording together. We wanted to give listeners something beautiful and sensuous. Guests include percussionist Jeff Ballard, whom people know from Chick Corea’s group, and multi-reed player Tim Ries, whom I met in Maria Schneider’s Orchestra.
Strange City (Palmetto). “The latest Herbie Nichols Project CD contains eight of his compositions that have never been recorded. Having no template for how to play them is a great challenge and one that we really enjoy.
Peace Pipe (Palmetto). Ben Allison’s new CD was a joy to make. Along with saxophonist Micheal Blake and drummer Mike Sarin, it features Malian kora master Mamadou Diabate. The kora is an African harp that gives the group a delicately soulful sound. Musically, it’s different from anything any of us have ever done: fresh, accessible and a lot of fun to play.