Complete Blue Note Recordings
Herbie Nichols -
Al McKibbon, Teddy Kotick
Max Roach, Art Blakey -
There is a little dark bar I like to go to where people know
things. We while away the nights in friendly arguments. Which phase of
Bergmans 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 artists 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 aesthetical 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 teetotaler, 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
In 1941 he was drafted into the army. It would be another two
years before he was demobilized, partially eating up this 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
Herbies songs (1951) Stennell, which was re-titled Opus
Starting in 1947 he would send his music to Blue Notes
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 fathers 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 Herbies 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
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 jazzs most iconic images. The booklet contains the albums
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 Herbies 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, Herbies 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 Herbies oeuvre and turn of
the century French pianist/composer Erik Satie, whose deceptively simple
melodies and their daydream inducing properties (Gymopedies, Gnossiennes)
Herbies own compositions sometimes mirrors.
Also in the classical tradition, much of Herbies music was
Programme music, music which like some of Debussys and Liszts 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
Herbies 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 songs structure. This never occurs with
Herbies 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
Taylors music is amazing and complex as is Andrew Hills, 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. Herbies manages to be cerebral but
often with a playful sense of humor.
Before these sessions, as was Blue Notes 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 Notes 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 Monks 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 jazzs next era, Max
formally studied at the Manhattan School of Music. At the age of eighteen Max
had been the house drummer at Monroes Uptown House, which along with
Mintons Playhouse was ground zero for bop. Here he came into contact with
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 Parkers, who he was with 1945, 1947-49 and 1951-53. He
would appear with the whos 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 Maxs 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 Powells
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
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 50s and 60s. 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 Maxs 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 jazzs 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 Monks 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 Didnt 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
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 Gershwins Mine from a musical revue Of Thee I
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 Herbies art, is he one of the
All I can do is paraphrase Joyces Molly Bloom:
-Maxwell will return with more adventures in sound-