Obituary

Tribute: Frank Kimbrough (1956-2020)

Pianist, composer and educator Frank Kimbrough died on 30 December at the age of 64. He was a long-time member of Maria Schneider’s Orchestra and a faculty member at Juilliard in New York. One of his former students, drummer Douglas Marriner, shares his memories of and reflections on Frank, who was “a master in the art of conversation. He was the ultimate listener, both to the musical moment and to the many people he cared for – who cared so deeply for him in return. His sudden and unexpected loss has been a shattering blow, New York’s jazz scene is in mourning for the loss of a much beloved artist, colleague, teacher and dear friend.” He continues below:

Frank Kimbrough. Publicity photo

Frank, the musician

I formed an attachment to Frank Kimbrough’s playing as a teenager long before I met him, as he shaped the soundworld of the Maria Schneider Orchestra. His harmonic palette was infinitely expansive, able to veer off into any direction at will led by an insubordinate sense of adventure. The way he navigated this intricately orchestrated and complex music with such impeccable taste, precision and originality in each performance was a hint to the scale of Frank’s gift of imagination, courage and play.

Frank’s balance of musical ingredients created a colourful richness, a sophisticated bounce and a feeling of warmth, but above all he was dedicated to the craft of melody. This gift of his, this beautiful longing sense of melody he drew from the piano, bound every ensemble together with a single cause – higher than any individual concerns. His improvisations, sometimes taking audacious but controlled leaps into the unknown, suggested that things – no matter how complicated or challenging – could always be resolved and that we were inevitably going to be alright. He trusted the music and was loyal to the musicians and the listeners.

Influences were diverse and distinctive. There was a magnetic attraction to the musical risk takers – especially the work of Andrew Hill, Paul Bley and Herbie Nichols, latterly whose compositions Kimbrough championed from relative obscurity with his Herbie Nichols Project – unearthing to the world lost compositions that had never previously been performed or recorded. He also credited Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Shirley Horn as important to his pianistic approach and harmonic sensibility – and went on to perform and record with Paul Motian, drummer for Jarrett and Evans’ respective iconic trios. The Frank Kimbrough Quartet recently recorded a complete survey of Thelonious Monk’s compositions with Rufus Reid, Billy Drummond and Scott Robinson entitled Monk’s Dreams on Sunnyside Records – a project of vast ambition and creative stamina.

Frank’s playing possessed a buoyant lyrical touch that could effortlessly pivot from swinging elegantly one moment to splashing vivid chordal waves of impressionism the next. But he also revelled in the mischievous and the unknown – those “squirly” moments (as he put it) when everything was laid bare and the musical safety net fully removed. He provoked musical dialogue, supporting whichever direction the music needed to go. There was not a shred of ego in his playing. His musical storytelling was delivered with patience, he let each tone, each cluster, each stroke of the paintbrush resonate fully to envelop the moment in its most radiant colour.

I’ll particularly miss Frank’s beautifully organic hookup with Jay Anderson on bass, his soaring in full flight with Billy Drummond flowing on drums, the scheming and plotting with Scott Robinson on whatever various instruments he happened to have to hand at that particular time. I’ll miss listening to him weave wildly distinctive and subversive narratives in his solos, improvising new masterpieces on the same tune, and the way he helped sculpt Maria Schneider’s music for nearly three decades and in turn must therefore take his credit in developing the evolution of the jazz orchestra.

Douglas Marriner with Frank Kimbrough outside The Juilliard School, Lincoln Center NYC. Artist Diploma Graduation May 2017

Frank, the teacher

Frank Kimbrough on recognising one’s own magic: “Sometimes you’re the last one to know”

And so we then get to Frank the teacher. He opened up our ears. He led by example and listened more deeply to us than we could to ourselves. He was the embodiment of personal and musical integrity; often dry and hilarious in his put-downs but always warm and genuine in his praise. A compliment from him meant the world since it was earned patiently.

Frank unveiled territory within your musicianship that he knew lay under-explored, and he provoked honesty and intention in your playing. He’d make you fall in love with songs you were previously indifferent towards, revealing elusive inner secrets. He built authentic, meaningful relationships with everyone. He believed in us completely and championed his students to anyone who’d listen.

After joining Juilliard’s faculty in 2008, Frank guided twelve graduating classes of talented musicians through the most critical periods of their musical and moral development..

My first encounter with Frank was on the fifth floor for Juilliard’s piano class placement exam on my first nerve-wracking day there starting the Masters program in 2013. I had to play the piano to Maria Schneider’s actual pianist, no big deal. I walked into the room, confidently but regretfully apologising for the dreadful racket that the panel were undoubtedly about to be subjected to. Frank chuckled at that slightly unorthodox introduction, humoured my audition stoically, helped me out with some chord voicings and then afterwards invited me out for one of his legendary “walks”. It turned out to be one of his shorter walks, only a mere three and a half hours or so, but it was instantly clear that Frank was a bit different.

Listening to him play in piano class was an outrageous privilege. He also loved to play recordings for us and share in his own musical tastes. I remember him playing me the rough mixes from his stunning Pirouet recording Solstice one lunchtime. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to listen to it first with him. It’s my favourite of his recordings, it’s exquisite (do yourself a favour and listen to it, uninterrupted).

Frank was always guided by exploration and an allegiance to play. He showed a deep optimism and trust in our potential. He was one of those special people who immediately put you at ease. He knew exactly the right word of encouragement or challenge to light the fire. I’ll really miss his husky beaming laugh and his greeting of a hug and the trademark double tap on the shoulder.

He gave us all a reference point. A moral framing. A context. The wider jazz community has been strengthened because of Frank Kimbrough. He brought people closer together even when he wasn’t there – social magnetism both direct and by proxy.

Frank Kimbrough was a deeply good man and we are lucky to have known him. I hope he knew how much he has shaped our lives and will always continue to do so. His legacy will be vast, and by osmosis through each of his students. He was deeply loved by so many people, and this is the saddest of losses.

We’ll always miss you, Frank.

LINKS: Douglas Marriner’s full tribute on his Facebook post
Tributes by Nate Chinen and Ethan Iverson
Frank Kimbrough’s last live solo set on video (2020)

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