There is a little dark bar I like to go to where people know things. We wile away the nights in friendly arguments. Which phase of Bergman’s career gave us the best movies, where in Mexico is Ambrose Bierce living and who are the all time greatest jazz pianists? What is interesting is that now, one of the main ingredients in determining "the best" seems to be their level of exposure.
Perhaps the greatest accolade and curse an artist can be given is to be termed "an artist's artist." The label which seems to resign them to obscurity except among the most hard core aficionados. This has largely been Herbie Nichols’ fate.
Herbie Nichols (1919-1963) started formally studying piano at the age of nine. Early on he mainly played in Dixieland bands, a start akin to two other fonts of progressive improvisation, Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd. These two would also later prove to be two of the most talented interpreters of his music. For all of them, these early Dixieland years were more of a financial necessity than an aesthetic choice.
Herbie also played in The Savoy Sultans while mingling with the early progenitors of Bop. Aside from a friendship with Thelonious Monk, he did not get much joy out of the then fertile 52nd Street scene. During this time there was still a misplaced nobility associated with jazz musicians and addiction(s). Herbie, ever the tea-totaler was shunned. Another off-putting aspect of this quite young man was his intellect. Herbie played chess, wrote and appreciated poetry. He also wrote insightful jazz articles. Well before jazz aficionados gleaned onto him, he wrote an article on Monk for Dial Magazine.
In 1941 he was drafted into the army. It would be another two years before he was demobilized, partially eating up the time by writing poetry and lyrics.
Upon his discharge, he found himself back in New York where he had to play piano for burlesques in Greenwich Village to make rent.
Pianist Mary Lou Williams was the first to record one of Herbie’s songs (1951) "Stennell," which was re-titled "Opus Z."
Starting in 1947 he would send his music to Blue Note’s Alfred Lion. For various reasons it would take nine more years before Herbie would be signed. Herbie was one of three all time great pianist-composers signed by Alfred Lion (Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill being the other two).
Things seemed to be looking up for Herbie. Also around this time (1956) Billy Holiday fell hard for his piece "Lady Sings the Blues" writing lyrics for it and making it her own to the point of using it for the name of her autobiography, too. The piece, originally titled "Serenade" has become an important part of the jazz lexicon and a totem of longing and heartache.
Herbie wrote over 170 songs. After his death much of his writing which was then stored at his father’s house was lost in a flood. We owe much of our knowledge of his pieces to Herbie himself, he had always been diligent about supplying the library of congress with his scores.
He would record three albums for Blue Note Records and one for Bethlehem. This would be followed by five years of studio inactivity, when jazz was in a constant frenzied state of flux. At the end of this period Herbie would die way too early of leukemia. A factor in Herbie’s long standing obscurity would seem to be lack of recorded sideman appearances. He did share the stage with some established heavy weights, but unlike another "obscure" pianist who also recorded for Blue Note, Elmo Hope, there is not sideman documentation on record for fans to hunt down or the casual listener to come across. An artistic ascension established without wax pedigree save for his own recordings.
The Blue Note boxed set collects all of his Blue Note output. It comprises thirty songs with eighteen, previously unreleased alternate tracks. Unlike some alternate tracks to be found on other musical omnibus, these alternate tracks will appeal to more than just the jazz completionists. Often it is subjective which is the "better" version of a track. The liner notes make mention that it sometimes took lengthy discussions to decide.
The packaging is aesthetically pleasing and avoids some of the more impractical concepts of other boxed sets. A cardboard slip case houses three CDs and a booklet. The tracks and musician information are listed on back of the slipcase and in the booklet itself. The CDs each go in a slim case which contains a different image on each by Francis Wolf, the man responsible for some of jazz’s most iconic images. The booklet contains the album’s original liner notes by Herbie himself and an informative essay by Frank Kimbrough and Ben Allison; the founders of The Herbie Nichols Project which is a group seeking to further appreciation of Herbie’s work through recordings and concerts.
The sound is pristine, the entire collection having been remastered by Michael Cuscuna, a man behind many important reissues over the years and a man who has made the remaster an art unto itself. The Super Bit Mapping process was used which allows the music to retain its ambient warmth while combining it with digital clarity.
From the start, Herbie’s intellect and formal training had given him an appreciation for 20th century composers. It is not too much of a stretch to see similarities between some of Herbie’s oeuvre and turn of the century French pianist/composer Erik Satie, whose deceptively simple melodies and their daydream inducing properties (Gymopedies, Gnossiennes) Herbie’s own compositions sometimes mirrors.
Also in the classical tradition, much of Herbie’s music was Programme music, music which like some of Debussy’s and Liszt’s was inspired by and describes a specific thing. Song titles were given much thought and an important part of the overall creative process for Herbie.
Although a contemporary of both Monk and Bud Powell, Herbie has often been referred to as a "disciple of.... " His playing does have some percussive aspects to it, the earliest most visible proponent of such technique being Bud Powell. I have found though, that one of the marvels of Herbie’s playing is his ability often contained within one piece to change tempos, touch and the actual cadence of his pianos tone. While there is definite joy to be had listening to the percussive school of playing, after awhile a formula is detected in a song’s structure. This never occurs with Herbie’s playing and pieces.
His friend Monk is a noticeable influence but no more so than the jagged lines to be found in the rhythmic works of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok who Herbie also greatly enjoyed.
Too often it is the easy thing to call any pianist/composer with odd time signatures or jagged note/chord clusters "Monk-like". Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill also frequently get this adjective. What the three have in common is that they represent separate artistic evolutions stemming from the same instrument and to some extent the same inspiration of Monk. It is a new modern classical. Jazz is sometimes referred to as American classical, but these three provide a more literal example. To really listen to their music is to realize they are from jazz but not of jazz.
It is not a case of "better than" but of the three Herbie is the more accessible style wise. While he remained his own man, he drew from diverse sources such as the previously mentioned classical idiom. There was of course the vernacular of jazz in many forms to be found too in both his playing and composing, elements of bop, stride and things yet to come, but also Caribbean rhythms which made up some of his ethnic background and Indian music which was another key to his works rhythmic complexity. Cecil Taylor’s music is amazing and complex as is Andrew Hill’s, even now their music seems ahead of the curve; musical taste makers still not having caught up to them. A modernism which in its newness and containing cerebral aspects, manages to intimidate many. Herbie’s manages to be cerebral but often with a playful sense of humor.
Before these sessions, as was Blue Note’s habit, the artists were allowed ample rehearsal time. In general, this practice led to the freedom to do more complex pieces and not have to have non-touring/working bands rely on jazz standards for lack of knowledge of a new piece.
There are no weak links in what is essentially two trios. Another practice of Blue Note’s was to put a more established musician from their stable on a session by a new guy. While this has never been disastrous it had made for some odd and uncomfortable pairings, such as some of the session men of Thelonious Monk’s Blue Note Debut "The Genuis of". Al McKibbon had been the house bassist at Birdland and often played with Thelonious Monk. He is able throughout the recordings to provide a solid bottom without any hint of boredom inducing repetition.
While it is easy to lament the fact that Herbie never got to play with the likes of Elvin Jones or Tony Williams, to name but two top notch skin-men, here, Max Roach is a perfect fit.
Like Herbie and many other greats of jazz’s next era, Max formally studied at the Manhattan School of Music. At the age of eighteen Max had been the house drummer at Monroe’s Uptown House, which along with Minton’s Playhouse was ground zero for bop. Here he came into contact with jazz’s vanguard.
He and Kenny Clark were directly involved with the creation of bop. Max was one of the first, true percussion stars who helped change the way his instrument was played. Instead of keeping time and then impressing during solos with pure speed, Max created the now well known technique of creating pulse points not with the base drum as had been the standard but utilizing the cymbals. This allowed for great freedom for the other instruments’ solos as well as his own. It also allowed for more dramatic and supple tempo changes.
Max would perfect his voice initially on the early important records of Charlie Parker’s, who he was with 1945, 1947-49 and 1951-53. He would appear with the who’s who of jazz. It was not until 1953 however that he finally recorded a date as a leader. Like many of his peers, he now saw bop as becoming formulaic but still a worth while jumping off point. With Miles Davis and a host of others there would be the "Birth of the Cool" sessions where he would participate in the birth of third-stream music, a sort of hybrid of symphonic big band mixed with intricate solos which organically grew out of the main body of a piece. There was ever an ongoing process of things being added to Max’s palate, the common factor throughout it all was an intricate forward thinking bent.
Around the time he was doing the sessions with Herbie he had also had his own group, co-led with trumpeter Clifford Brown and Bud Powell’s younger pianist brother, Ritchie. The group would last for only two years, a fatal car crash taking both Clifford and Ritchie. Max would continue the group with Kenny Dorham on trumpet and Sonny Rollins replacing Harold Land on tenor sax. These two versions of his group showed him the way to naturally meld impressive solos with more intricate arrangements, arrangements which did more than serve to fill time between the musicians' solos.
With Herbie you hear a most successful partnership not born of touring but sharing the same combination of daring and highly polished talent.
On disc two "House Party Starting" contains subtle tempo changes and a long snaking rhythm which is trance inducing, like watching candlelight reflect off the polished wood of a bar. The song seems to almost stop time without relying on mere repetition. This was actually the first song I ever heard by Herbie and every time, still, I marvel at not just the song structure but his ability to seamlessly change himself within the body of one piece.
Teddy Kotick throughout his career took great pride in sticking with the rhythm section and avoiding solos. He had a rich tone which has been heard on many important jazz records from the 50’s and 60’s. What is interesting is the subtle difference in the pieces which feature him as opposed to Al. Too often if a bassist does not specialize in solos or does not take his obligatory turn during a piece, people seem hard pressed to notice a difference. But notice the subtle changes in Max’s playing on pieces which feature him with Teddy instead of Al. Both bassists add to the pieces which already contain kinetic aspects to them.
The other drummer on the sessions is Art Blakey. Art had gotten his start in the big band circuit including time in the forward thinking Flecther Henderson group. He naturally gravitated towards the bop players brining the steady funky groove concept to this new jazz.
Art felt that with the possibilities of this new music being made, a band should work as a cohesive unit, not just providing back up for whom ever was soloing. He appeared on many seminal albums before forming a sort of jazz collective, The Jazz Messengers.
Art was one of the first jazz musicians to be interested in what would later be known as world music, mixing in aspects of it in his playing. Aside from leaving a legacy of adding to percussionists over all palette, he left what could possibly be considered jazz’s version of an ivy league school, The Jazz Messengers.
Many of his band members would go on to lead groups of their own. There were many incarnations of this band and the roster reads like jazz royalty role call.
Even while working with various versions of his own ensemble, Art was frequently to be found on other artists’ dates. He played on Thelonious Monk’s first Blue Note dates (now available as two separate remasters Genuis of Modern Music vols 1&2.) Similar to this Herbie Nichols collection, he and Max split drum duties on the still amazingly powerful album "Thelonious Monk Trio (Fantasy Records 1952.)
Around the time of the Herbie Nichols session, Art and an incarnation of the Jazz Messengers which featured Clifford Brown, Horace Silever, Lou Donaldson and Curly Russell were recorded live at Birdland. (A Night at Birdland Vols 1&2 Blue Note Records). Aside from being a compelling live document of a version of the Messengers which was as powerful as it was short lived, it manages to capture if not the birth, then the infancy of what would become known as hard-bop.
Both Max and Art had always been polyrhythmic, but Art ‘s was more an emphasis on setting up a funky groove.
On the first CD "It Didn’t Happen" which Herbie wrote just four days before going into the studio. It was inspired by an unrequited romance and Art shows that funky can also be accomplished with great subtlety.
Like Monk, Herbie did not often do covers and usually when done they would be lesser known pieces that could be made their own. Here Herbie tackles Gershwin’s "Mine" from a musical revue "Of Thee I Sing".
All the music to be found on these three discs is thoroughly engrossing, but not in a way that demands one listens in silence or alone.
When it comes up again, and I am looked at with skepticism by those who have yet to discover Herbie’s art, is he one of the greatest?
All I can do is paraphrase Joyce’s Molly Bloom: