Frank Kimbrough Trio – Solstice – Pirouet

Frank Kimbrough Trio – Solstice – Pirouet PIT3097, 56:04 (10/7/16) *****:

A great piano trio CD from the pianist with the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

(Frank Kimbrough; piano / Jay Anderson; bass / Jeff Hirshfield; drums)

The first thing I noticed about Frank Kimbrough’s Solstice is that it represents the work of three eminent and distinctive female composers: Annette Peacock (two tunes), Carla Bley, and Maria Schneider, as well as a song from singer Maryanne de Prophetis, long-time collaborator of the pianist. Congruent to the artistic sensibilities of these composers are works by Paul Motian and Andrew Hill and the title track “Solstice” by Mr. Kimbrough himself. Only “Here come the Honey Man” by Gershwin pays tribute to the American Songbook.  Knowing Frank to exemplify a thinking-man’s approach to jazz improvisation, I looked forward to his investigations of these disciplined but emotionally potent composers. His trio consists of Jay Anderson and Jeff Hirschfield, both well-known names in the business.

The first track is Carla Bley’s “Seven.” The oddly-shaped melody is introduced with simplicity and a feeling of tentativeness by the piano. It seems an inquiry into the strangeness of the world. The bass joins the discussion but the conundrum does not resolve itself. We are not even clear on the question. Perhaps it asks why things don’t work out the way we expect them to, or even more randomly, why crabs move sideways. At least there is some encouragement from the drummer, who pushes the piece to its ambiguous conclusion. This presents a contrast to the typical opening number, which demonstratively declares “This is Jazz!” with self-confident gusto. However, this diffidence will come as no surprise to those familiar with the musicianship of the leader who favors introspection to virtuosity.

On the second track, “Here Come the Honey Man,” it is gratifying to see an evocation of the special flavor of Gershwin while not falling under the long shadow of Bill Evans. In fact, throughout the recording, even when the bassist plays beautiful counter-melodies high up the neck of his instrument, which recall that great liberation of the instrument in 1961 by the Scott LaFaro. The pianist makes no reference to Bill’s florid right hand or harmonically expansive left hand.  Rather we have a lean and diffident Romanticism which balances beauty and withholding.  At the end of the nearly eight-minute song, we are not quite sure that the “Honey Man” ever quite made it any more than “Quinn the Eskimo” did in the famous Dylan song, yet we continue to believe in him.

We are in familiar territory on the third track by Maryanne De Prophetis. This is a simple and elegiac lyric played tenderly by Frank.  The contours of the tune and its treatment recall a moment of pure magic in the history of jazz. On the 1983 recording by the Keith Jarrett trio  “Moon and Sand,”  the trio discovers a sublime beauty which becomes ever more affecting as the group slows down, waiting and watching in awe and humility a moment of unanticipated grace. Here the trio, led by Jay Anderson’s bass which sounds ever so much like Mr. Peacock, comes close to this standard of artistic perfection.

After the sweet simplicity of the first three tracks, we welcome a brief  and angular theme by Paul Motian, which segues into an extended display of drumming, in which Jeff Hirschfield exerts himself with aplomb. He is joined in a rousing argument by the bassist, and there is some fine, dissonant, thoroughly-bracing squabbling. By the time the piano joins in, it is clear that the drummer has prevailed if for no other reason that he has as many hands as Kali the Destroyer.

“Albert’s Love Theme” by Annette Peacock follows. It is surely the most brooding and pessimistic contemplation of Romantic possibilities. Frank again shows that his method is inquiry. Even with the other instruments disappearing into the mist, he rarely resorts to the left hand, preferring to expose a fragile melodic line to the elements,. Now and again we hear a finger-nail on a cymbal or a tentative bass note to remind us that the friends have not lost contact on this arctic night journey. By the end, we suppose that Albert’s romantic ambitions, such as they were, came a cropper. Nor would we recommend this tune to a mariachi band or someone standing under a window with a small guitar in spring.

Frank’s song “Question’s The Answer” is medium tempo swinging blues-inflected tune which strongly invokes an influence that hangs over the whole record, namely Paul Bley. Fans of this incomparable musician will be thrilled by this tribute.  The playing is marvelous, not a single extra paradiddle or unnecessary gesture. On “From California With Love” by Andrew Hill, the trio tries again to negotiate the antinomies of freedom and group cohesion. But for once it doesn’t entirely work. In spite of some fine individual efforts, there is feeling of drift and diffusion; for a moment we are on an anonymous ECM session circa 1988.

The group is back on track for Annette Peacock’s “El Cordobes,” on which Jay Anderson rambles thoughtfully on the bass. Superb interaction follows.  A tighter groove, and we are again at the highest level of musical dialogue and concentration on a record that sets a very high bar for these values. “Walking By Flashlight” by Maria Schneider is a fitting end as it honors the genius behind our greatest contemporary big band.  Ms. Schneider’s characteristic brush strokes are immediately recognizable. The very pastoral theme conjures up the glorious textures of her orchestra but also the simple beauty of a midwestern meadow under a summer sky.

This is an especially rewarding recording in every regard by a very simpatico unit. They show that it’s possible to construct a coherent recital based on strong compositions that impose a special discipline and attentiveness to artistic purpose on musicians already inclined to originality and musical integrity. I expect this particular group will continue to champion these and other like-minded composers, and we will all be the richer for it.

TrackList:  Seven; Here Come The Honey Man; Solstice: The Sunflower: Albert’s Love Theme; Question’s The Answer; From California With Love: El Cordobes: Walking By Flashlight

—Fritz Balwit

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