Kimbrough (Newvelle Records)

Various Artists

Released July 2021

Arts Fuse 2021 Jazz Critics Poll Top 20 New Album




I like to imagine Frank sitting on a bench in the little park by his apartment in Queens, or perhaps strolling through Central Park. Maybe it’s 1996 and he’s got that ponytail, or maybe it’s 2016 and he’s got his Juilliardprofessor-look going. Either way, it’s about 11:00 PM, he’s got that half smile on his face that he was a little infamous for, one arm draped over the back rest, or slightly swinging at his sides and he’s catching a melody.

There’s something insubstantial about a jazz composition. Often just one page long, single notated lines over chord symbols — little translucent scraps of melody and harmony, a lens to see the world through — an opening. I struggle sometimes with the juxtaposition of process and import. Supposedly, Duke Ellington wrote “Solitude” in 20 minutes because his band needed one more tune for a record date. Wayne Shorter is one of the most remarkable musicians of the 20th century, but you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in saying his greatest achievement was the morning he spent writing the 16 measures of “Nefertiti”. What a thought!

Frank didn’t so much compose songs as discover them. He wrote almost all of them while wandering through the city. I want to call him a nocturnal lepidopterist, out with his butterfly net in the odd corners of the city but that’s not really it. He wasn’t precious about it, he didn’t catalog his tunes, and he wasn’t thirsting for any kind of rare discovery. Frank wrote music the same way he improvised, less the Nabokovian madman with the net and more like that lady in Washington Square Park who feeds all the squirrels. The music came to him.

As a student of Frank’s I used to marvel at his ability to hear music away from the piano. He had perfect pitch and a preternatural ability to hear polyphony in his head. He could hear these huge nine-note chords spelled out, not unheard of amongst professional musicians, but Frank brought a certain effortlessness to it. It felt superhuman to me, like he had some kind of supercomputer in his brain doing double-time computations. But Frank was also the man famous for the “hang.” He was the guy you had three hour dinners with, or went on five hour walks with. Frank’s approach wasn’t about feats of uncanny ear training. He didn’t practice music away from the piano just because he could, he did it because that’s where the music was. The music is not in the practice room, and it’s not on the cell phone (which Frank never owned, a remarkable achievement for a freelancing musician reliant on getting called for gigs). You have to go out in the world and be present for it. The music is the city, the parks, and the quiet of a nighttime stroll, but mostly, the music is other people. It’s the connections you build that make you the musician that you are. I never realized this until after Frank died, but for me he came closest to marrying the spirit of musical improvisation to the way he lived. Frank’s genius was profoundly human.

You only have to listen to a couple of these songs to hear how much Frank was loved in this community. During the session, there was a lot of awkward elbow/fistbump-Covid handshakes and a general feeling of surreality just to be sharing space with other humans. But then the music would start and it was absolutely thrilling, as if all of this kinetic energy had been stored up over the past 14 months just looking for an outlet. There are 67 musicians on this record and we recorded 61 tracks in three and half days. I felt like I was floating in air through most of it. It was a very ambitious project that somehow ran ahead of schedule. We even captured 7 extra songs that we didn’t plan on as people flipped through Frank’s tunes asking, “Hey, can the four of us try this one?” Most of the ensembles had at least two people that had never played together. Some musicians were reuniting to play together for the first time in decades. There are at least four generations of musicians represented on this record, students, colleagues, friends and bandmates of Frank, all wanting to pay tribute. And of course, maybe the biggest tribute was to have Frank pull us all together, for one big hang, after this god-awful year.

But I keep coming back to these tunes. When I envisioned this project, I had about 15 charts of Frank’s and I figured I could rustle up a couple more. When I got in touch with Ron Horton, he offered to scan and send over what he had from Frank’s files and his own archives. He sent me 90 tunes. I’ve spent the last couple of months playing these tunes, both at the piano and as I wander my own environment. Some I knew, many I never heard, many have never been recorded. I was struck by their integrity and consistency. Frank knew exactly what he was about even back in 1979. He never wrote something just to try out a new style or a concept. They are strikingly specific in their shape, as far as I can tell he had to essentially create his own harmonic vocabulary just to capture what he was hearing, and yet they are wide open in the particulars. That reminds me of Monk and Wayne Shorter. Duke too. Frank would argue strenuously to the contrary, but I’m comfortable putting Frank in the conversation with any of the great jazz composers. There’s so much life in this music and it makes me miss Frank too god-damned much.

I get great comfort from hearing a miniature reflection of Frank’s life in this record. All those relationships that Frank fostered bouncing off each other – an afterglow of all the love Frank put out in the world. Our legacies live, not in the monuments we leave behind, but in the way things spin forward from us. So, despite the inspiration I feel in holding Frank’s book of music in my hands, I know that these musical haikus don’t encapsulate a life. But when I flip through these songs, and hear clumsily in my head what Frank heard in brilliant color, what comes to mind is a roadmap for how one man can sit on a park bench in Queens and change the world.

Elan Mehler

Track Listing:

1. The Call 07:34

2. C Minor Waltz 04:58

3. Kudzu 07:24

4. Elegy for P.M. 04:35

5. Falling Waltz 05:13

6. Forsythia 06:49

7. Quickening 04:04

8. Whirl 03:32

9. Wings 04:15

10. Hope 06:41

11. Clara’s Room 05:34

12. For Duke (Instrumental) 04:15

13. Lullabluebye 07:26

14. For Jimmy G. 05:55

15. November 06:49

16. Adrian’s Way 05:42

17. Sadness 05:13

18. Helix 05:59

19. The Breaks 05:06

20. 20 Bars 07:30

21. Ancestors 06:12

22. Kids Stuff 04:57

23. Meantime 05:37

24. Capricorn Lady 05:37

25. Waltz for Lee 04:43

26. 727 04:52

27. Beginning 04:48

28. Southern Lights 04:56

29. Regeneration 07:08

30. A & J 05:48

31. Eventualities 06:15

32. Moonflower 02:24

33. Just Suppose 05:01

34. Reluctance (Quartet) 06:55

35. Areas (Trumpet, Piano, Bass) 03:36

36. The Spins 05:31

37. Sanibel Island 05:04

38. Fubu 06:55

39. Cascade Rising 05:14

40. Over 03:57

41. Blue Smoke 03:47

42. Air 04:22

43. Affirmation 04:17

44. Quiet as It’s Kept 06:09

45. TMI 07:57

46. Time Will Tell 06:42

47. Areas (Piano, Bass, Drums) 04:41

48. Noumena 05:15

49. Sloppy Seconds 05:20

50. Reluctance (Solo Piano) 04:11

51. Grass Valley 06:20

52. Questions the Answer 05:28

53. Lucent 06:06

54. No Radio 04:26

55. For Carla 03:24

56. Ode 03:40

57. St. Mark’s Place 05:24

58. Ca’lina 05:56

59. Hymn 04:05

60. Svengali 11:05

61. For Duke (Vocals) 04:56


Piano: Addison Frei (21, 33, 41, 51, 54, 61), Fred Hersch (50), Sean Mason (14, 31), Elan Mehler (9, 20, 43, 56), Samora Pinderhughes (1, 25, 44), Ben Rosenblum (3, 12, 27, 36, 46), Jacob Sacks (58), Scott Spivak (37), Helen Sung (5, 39, 59), Craig Taborn (4, 26, 29, 35, 42), Isaiah J. Thompson (49), Dan Tepfer (16, 30, 32, 34, 57), Micah Thomas (6, 7, 22, 47), Gary Versace (8, 10, 23, 24), Elio Villafranca (19, 52), Joel Wenhardt (28, 60), Glenn Zaleski (13, 17, 38)

Bass: Ben Allison (7, 22, 38, 39, 45, 59), Jay Anderson (25, 53), Alexis Cuadrado (19, 52), Dezron Douglas (5, 13), Michael Formanek (14, 31, 40, 49, 56), John Hébert (11, 15, 18, 26, 29, 35, 48, 55), Marty Jaffe (3, 12, 27, 46), Rob Jost (6, 36, 43, 47), Rufus Reid (2, 16, 30, 34, 57), Tony Scherr (21, 33, 41, 52, 54, 61), Martin Wind (8, 20, 23, 28, 60), Ben Wolfe (1, 10, 44)

Guitar: Steve Cardenas (21, 53), Ben Monder (4, 11, 15, 18, 45, 48, 55), Todd Neufeld (2, 34)

Drums: Jeff Cosgrove (34, 42), Billy Drummond (11, 14, 31), Jeff Hirshfield (1, 10, 25, 44, 53), Tim Horner (21, 33, 41, 51, 54, 61), Douglas Marriner (3, 27, 45, 46), Allan Mednard (5, 13, 38), Francisco Mela (20, 23, 60), Tony Moreno (40, 49, 56), Clarence Penn (18, 26, 29), Rich Rosenzweig (12, 36, 43), Satoshi Takeishi (19, 52), Dave Treut (8, 28), Jeff Williams (6, 7, 22, 47, 59), Matt Wilson (2, 16, 30, 57)

Tenor Saxophone and Clarinet:  Ted Nash (10, 24, 60)

Alto Saxophone: Patrick Cornelius (46), Alexa Tarantino (2, 30, 32, 57), Immanuel Wilkins (11, 31)

Alto and Baritone Saxophone: Allan Chase (1, 21, 25, 60)

Alto and Soprano Saxophone: Steve Wilson (3, 12, 27, 43)

Tenor Saxophone: Michael Blake (14, 40, 49), Evan Harris (41, 51, 61), Joe Lovano (4, 18, 26), Donny McCaslin (15, 18, 29, 31, 45, 48, 55), Rich Perry (22, 39), Noah Preminger (17, 38, 59), Scott Robinson (1, 9, 25, 53, 60)

Trumpet: Dave Douglas (2, 26, 35, 42), Noah Halpern (28, 60), Ron Horton (11, 14, 29, 40, 45, 48, 55), Kirk Knuffke (6, 22), Riley Mulherkar (1, 25, 44), Jesse Neuman (21, 41, 51)

Trombone: Ryan Keberle (1, 25)

Vocals: Olivia Chindamo (61)

Arrangements: Ryan Truesdell (25, 60)

Recorded May 10 – 13, 2021, at EastSide Sound, New York

Recorded and Mixed by Marc Urselli

Mastered by Colin Bryson

Produced by Elan Mehler

Executive Produced by Maitland Jones, Jim Harvey, Steve Satterfield, Matt Steinfeld, and JC Morisseau

Photography by Anna Yatskevich

Cover artwork and typography by Martin Grasser and Zrinka Buljubašić


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.”

Nate Chinen (New York Times)