Chances are that you have never heard of pianist Herbie Nichols. He was one of the greatest compositional talents in jazz. He was born in 1919 and was a contemporary of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. His catalog is thin, only three releases from six sessions in the 1950s, all in a trio format. He scraped along playing backing up impersonators, stand-up comics, and strippers in New York dives, never able to make living from his own music, and died penniless of leukemia by the time he was only 44. Although recognized by his contemporaries and supported by Alfred Lion of Blue Note and Charles Mingus, he was more a rumor, a shadow in the broader music business. He may have written as many as 170 original compositions, but only 40 were ever recorded. And never fully realized with addition of horns.
Chances are that he would have remained in obscurity were it not for the efforts of pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison who have formed the Herbie Nichols Project that seeks to resurrect Nichols' talent. The Herbie Nichols Project has recorded two CDs ("Love in Proximity" and "Dr. Cyclops" Dream"). Their third compilation, "Strange City," includes a formidable band that Kimbrough and Allison has assembled: Ron Horton on trumpet, Ted Nash on tenor saxophone, Michael Blake on soprano saxophone, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and Matt Wilson on drums.
Nichols' music distantly recalls Monk. His music is rooted in the blues, but also by Bartok and Villa Lobos. It has that off-kilter, unusual sparkle. It feels familiar, but it also something boldly different. It’s like the album cover for "Strange City." From afar it looks like a medallion, perhaps of Islamic or Chinese origin, but close up it is plain that it is a manhole cover embedded in a lawn. The title track, "Strange City," is contemplative piece that, according to Kimbrough and Allison, "evokes the feeling of being at piece with one self surrounded by mayhem." There is a wonderful interlude where the piano playing is gorgeously serene. "Moments Magical" begins with a four-horn improvisation that recalls Monk’s "Abide with Me" which is then followed by a trio of soprano saxophone, bass and drums. It’s an eccentric, complex piece that is slow and mournful. "The Happenings" is a blues that slips and slithers like funky strip music, while "Blue Shout" initially growls with Gordo’s wild intro and then erupts into a bouncy burlesque show. It’s wonderfully lascivious. "Karna Kangi" is a gregarious, joyful, offbeat romp. Each of the pieces is unique and accessible, each beautifully interesting.
Chances are that this may be one of the best jazz recordings in 2001. It is brilliant.