Jazz Musicians Unite With One Goal: Celebrating Frank Kimbrough

A couple of months ago, as the long, lean era of pandemic stillness was just beginning to open to new possibilities, some of the finest jazz musicians in New York could be found shuffling in and out of a Lower East Side recording studio as if through a revolving door. At one point, several of them — including the saxophonist Donny McCaslin, the trumpeter Ron Horton and the pianist Craig Taborn — delved into a wistful composition titled “Regeneration,” giving it all the supple dynamism of a banner rippling in the breeze.

Along one wall of the studio was a framed photograph of the song’s composer, the pianist Frank Kimbrough, who died suddenly at the end of last year, at 64. His sly smile in the portrait, conveying a benevolent skepticism, felt well suited to the project underway: an elaborate tribute featuring nearly 60 of his pieces interpreted by more than 65 of his associates, including former students and distinguished peers. Amounting to more than five and a half hours of music, this ambitious release is available on Friday digitally and on streaming services from Newvelle Records, which usually focuses exclusively on premium vinyl.

Within a musical landscape defined by relationships, Kimbrough operated as both a connector and an outlier. “He just had a 360 view of things, and a completely open mind on the scene,” said the alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, who took part in the sessions. “The folks who knew him really loved him,” he added, “but even among musicians, there are a lot of people who don’t know his name.”

A grand gesture on behalf of an underrecognized figure, “Kimbrough” looks from one angle like the culmination of a lifetime’s accumulated good will. As a pianist, Kimbrough was prolific and widely admired but best known for a lasting tenure with the Maria Schneider Orchestra; his precise, perceptive accompaniment helped shape that ensemble’s expressive sound, up to and including “Data Lords,” the most critically acclaimed jazz album of 2020. As an educator, Kimbrough left behind a deep legacy of mentorship, most recently in the prestigious Jazz Studies program at the Juilliard School.

Elan Mehler, a pianist who studied with him during an earlier stint at New York University, co-founded Newvelle about six years ago, and invited Kimbrough to record its inaugural release. That album, “Meantime,” paired him with a handful of younger players like the trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, who had just completed a masters at Juilliard. Fittingly, all of the proceeds from “Kimbrough” will go toward the Frank Kimbrough Jazz Scholarship there, established by his widow, the singer Maryanne de Prophetis.

Mehler conceived the tribute with an intergenerational ideal in mind, arranging his rotating cast so that barely any tracks have the same personnel. “I had multiple spreadsheets, color-coded by musician,” he said during a break in the session. “I’ve never fallen as deeply into anything as I fell into this project. I’d be up until two, three in the morning just putting bands together and then playing the songs with headphones on the keyboard, and changing it, flipping it around, and then falling asleep and dreaming about it.”

In addition to Mehler and Taborn, the pianists on the new set include Fred Hersch, who knew Kimbrough as a contemporary, and Isaiah J. Thompson, who had him as an instructor — along with an honor roll of others, like Gary Versace, Helen Sung, Dan Tepfer, Elio Villafranca and Jacob Sacks. Like everyone involved in the project, they donated their services, creating not only a stirring homage but also a snapshot of a uniquely transitional time.

“If it wasn’t this moment where everybody’s ready to finally play music again, but not yet touring, this wouldn’t have been able to happen,” Mehler said. “Just the fact that everybody’s in the same city is crazy.”

As a compendium of Kimbrough’s music, the Newvelle release also stakes a serious claim for his legacy as a composer — something that took even Mehler somewhat by surprise. When he first started mapping out the project, he consulted with de Prophetis about material. They asked Horton, an experienced archivist, to assemble a book of Kimbrough compositions. He ended up compiling more than 90 of them.

“Frank was modest about his composing,” Horton said during a session break. “But those of us who knew him, going back 40 years, knew he was very special as a composer.”

Moments earlier, Horton had demonstrated the point while recording a ballad titled “Noumena,” with a hymnlike calm that spiraled into agitated abstraction. The guitarist Ben Monder imparted a barbed edge with his pedal effects, as Horton and McCaslin jostled around the melody. Their performance was a vibrant extrapolation of Kimbrough’s original design — charged with a spirit of freedom, as he’d meant it to be.

Kimbrough took his stewardship of the jazz tradition seriously: his final and most ambitious release, in 2018, was “Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk.” (It was issued as a six-CD boxed set, for which I wrote liner notes.) What Kimbrough prized most highly as a musician was a sense of unfolding mystery and slippery lyricism — qualities he associated with Monk and a few other personal touchstones, like the drummer Paul Motian, the keyboardist Annette Peacock and the pianists Andrew Hill and Paul Bley.

For a period starting in the early 1990s, Kimbrough performed and recorded extensively with the Jazz Composers Collective, founded by the bassist Ben Allison. Though it was created to spotlight new music by its members, the collective had its most visible success story in the Herbie Nichols Project — a repertory group and reclamation project focused on another of Kimbrough’s piano heroes, featuring Horton and Allison, among others.

Speaking in a studio hallway before he joined Horton and others for a raucous take on “TMI,” Allison marveled at the impromptu community that had formed around Kimbrough: “Elan’s organizing the sessions, but it’s his musicality and what he did as an artist that coalesces other musicians like moths around a flame,” he said. “And for the decades that I knew him and worked with him, we talked a lot about that: how to bring people together around an idea.”

The saxophonist Joe Lovano — who recorded a moving “Elegy for P.M.” in a first-time encounter with Taborn and Monder — raised a similar point in reference to Kimbrough’s compositions. “Each one is an idea,” Lovano said, “and has a sound.” Another of the pieces he played was “727,” with Taborn, the trumpeter Dave Douglas, the bassist John Hébert and the drummer Clarence Penn. On the page, this piece involved minimal instruction; in the hands of these musicians, it bloomed.

“What’s there in the song, it’s the essential information,” reflected Taborn after the take, describing Kimbrough as a composer attuned to the intuition of seasoned improvisers. “It’s clearly reductive of a larger scheme. He’s asking, ‘What’s the thing that needs to be here that makes this phrase happen?’ And then everything else is stripped away.”

What’s remarkable about “Kimbrough” is how fully the songs are realized, almost invariably in a first take, by unexpected groupings of musicians. Among the many highlights are a gently drifting “A&J,” with Alexa Tarantino on alto saxophone, Tepfer on piano, Rufus Reid on bass and Matt Wilson on drums; “Quiet as It’s Kept,” featuring Mulherkar and the pianist Samora Pinderhughes; “Eventualities,” with its collegial sparring between McCaslin and Wilkins; and an authoritative read on “Quickening” by Kimbrough’s piano protégé Micah Thomas, with Allison and the drummer Jeff Williams.

Some of these musicians were rekindling fruitful associations for the first time in years. Others were meeting for the first time on the studio floor. After such a long period of isolation, apart from any semblance of a living scene, those connections felt all the more sustaining and vital. “Hearing everybody come together around this music is very gratifying,” Allison, who knew Kimbrough as well as anyone involved, said in a studio hallway.

Public recognition had never come easily to Kimbrough, who loathed artistic compromise as much as he did musical cliché. What would he have thought about so many musicians coming together in his honor? Allison flinched, as if the question had knocked the wind out of him. He fell silent for more than 15 seconds before he could form a choked reply: “I’m sure he’d love it.”

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