Herbie Nichols (1919-1963) is often described as an "unsung hero." He was generally overlooked or underestimated by the critics. The late Leonard Feather perhaps pinned down the reason when he observed "An early associate of Thelonious Monk, Nichols was sidetracked into jobs that prevented his modern jazz style from being heard widely." I'm the first to admit that having collected jazz since 1950, I don't own a Herbie Nichols record. The pianist and composer recorded only six sessions as a leader and even less as a sideman.
The New England born guitarist, Eric T. Johnson discovered Nichols when reading A.B.Spellman's book, Four Lives In The Bebop Business
. Homage has been paid to Nichols by many artists including Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd and Ben Allison and Frank Kimbrough's Herbie Nichols Project
. Eric T. Johnson's quintet continues the series of past tributes in convincing style. The leader of the band Crosscurrent
since 1989, Johnson is the veteran of several recording sessions. The guitarist is joined by one his tutors, reedman George Garzone, with trumpeter Phil Grenadier, bassist Bob Nieske and drummer Nat Mugavero. Perhaps in homage to Nichols, there is no piano.
The quintet tackles Herbie Nichols' challenging compositions with confidence. The album includes ten pieces penned by the pianist during his relatively short career. Only one, Lady Sings The Blues
, would be recognized by Joe Public. The tune's universal appeal, generated by Billie Holiday's memorable recording, receives a new lease on life with the quintet's rendition. George Garzone and Eric T. Johnson both deliver classic solos. On Lady
, Johnson's articulate guitar reminded me of the late Sal Salvador.
Phil Grenadier gets a workout on It Didn't Happen
. The leader's guitar is featured perfectly on the beautiful Love, Gloom, Cash, Love
. Every Cloud
and Step Tempest
are outstanding too.
While as fresh as tomorrow's newspaper, the music of Eric T. Johnson
and Herbie Nichols
will take you back to an era when everything was very cool