Album reviews

Frank Kimbrough – ‘Frank Kimbrough 2003-2006’

Frank Kimbrough – Frank Kimbrough 2003-2006.
Volume 1: Lullabluebye. Volume 2: Play

(Palmetto Records PM2202. Album review by Liam Noble)

The piano trio is a very popular format – not too loud, cheaper than a quartet – but that subdued dynamic can be a challenge. It’s harder to make a break between the tune and the solos, the composed and improvised parts can end up “bleeding” in to each other. This grey area was exploited with glee by pianists like Paul Bley and Andrew Hill, whose fluidity broke free from the slightly choreographed arrangements of many piano trios. Both Bley and Hill, along with Annette Peacock, Steve Lacy and Jimmy Giuffre are referenced by Frank Kimbrough in his liner notes for these two companion albums which first appeared on the Palmetto label, Lullabluebye (with Ben Allison and Matt Wilson) and Play (with Masa Kamaguchi and Paul Motian), the albums newly mixed and remastered for this release.

In both trios, he wears his influences on his sleeve, but he also improvises his way out from under their shadows, and this is what makes his work so compelling, forming these towering and idiosyncratic influences into a personal whole.

I loved this first disc: the deceptively simple, asymmetrical swagger of “Lullabluebye”, the chugging insistence of “Kid Stuff” and the fragmented funk stuttering of “Fu Bu” all highlight a rhythm section that can do pretty much anything and everything. It swings, grooves, dances and, in the case of “Ghost Dance”, hangs with menace: one of my favourites here, this piece is inspired by the great Annette Peacock’s bracingly dissonant lyricism. “Centering” gives a sense of simply wondering around, which is not the same as being lost, and “You Only Live Twice” looks at the tune as a standard, avoiding the kitsch allusions to the original’s melodrama. “Eventualities”, the final track, is a beautiful solo piano masterclass in sound and control. When the bass and drums join him, it’s with an almost reverent sense of awareness of what has gone before. Above all, if you like the sound of the instrument, there’s such a lot here to admire.

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“Play”, a one-off recording date with two musicians who had never played together before, is looser…Motian was reluctant to travel at this time of his life, so getting him to Philadelphia to record was a big achievement and meant time was limited. The big, booming sound of the bassist mixes well with Motian’s unmistakable clatter, and the whole session has an urgency that comes with a deadline. The drummer’s presence seems to bring out the Paul Bley in Kimbrough, but he rises above all that, Bley being just one of the players he has got right inside of. “The Spins” is a tribute to Steve Lacy, but has a hint of Herbie Nichols in its pianistic flourishes, providing the perfect jumping off point for the three way rhythmic counterpoint that follows. “Waiting In Santander” is a real treasure here, you can hear the sheer grace of Kimbrough’s touch as he layers the various textures across the stillness of the backdrop. And in “Regeneration”, I thought I could even hear a touch of Dave Brubeck’s influence…

These days, the surface sheen of music is getting more and more attention: we constantly need to be told what it is, what’s new, how has it been re-invented? Frank Kimbrough urges the listener to get beyond that, to think past the idea of a “piano trio” and simply revel in the interplay, melodic richness and conversational joy of these groups. I feel he was one of the most well-read pianists of his generation. He sadly passed away in 2020, and these albums are a timely reminder of his erudite and inquisitive spirit.

LINKS: Purchase Frank Kimbrough 2003-2006

Palmetto Records website

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