PABLO HELD INVESTIGATES: FRANK KIMBROUGH

Pablo & Frank Kimbrough.jpgI really love Frank Kimbrough’s playing. I became aware of his music through his record “Play” and which is a fantastic album that I always recommend to anyone who hasn’t heard it yet. Through that album I checked out as many recordings of him as I could. Personal favorites of mine are of course “Play” but also “Chant”, “Solstice” and “Live at the Kitano”. I’m was deeply touched by his music and I felt the need to reach out to him and thank him for all the inspiration so I sent him an eMail. He responded very kindly and said I should let him know if I’ll over come to New York. A couple of years later my trio had a gig at the German Consulate in New York so naturally I invited Frank. Right before we were about to walk on stage he came backstage to us, said Hi and told us that he was looking forward to hear us. I was overwhelmed by this gesture. Of course if a hero of yours comes to listen to your concert there’s the possibility of getting intimidated or too excited or whatever… not with Frank! He has such a nice and supporting vibe… After the show we hung out and had a great conversation. He told me many great stories about Annette Peacock, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, his interest in Morton Feldman’s Music and much more. We really clicked and felt a connection right from the start. It sounds like a cliché, but I felt like I had known him before I even met him. After my gig in New York we stayed in touch via eMail and continued our conversation that way. It felt like a no-brainer to ask Maestro Frank for this interview series and we decided to do it as an eMail conversation. What you’re about to read unfolded over the course of a couple of months. I’m excited to share this with all of you!

Pablo Held: I have been listening to „Solstice“ quiet a lot the last few weeks and today I decided to learn and transcribe Miles & Gil Evans version of „Here come de honey Man”, and while doing that I came across that Shirley Horn version… later today I listened to your wonderful Interviews on NeonJazz and Newport Festival and I learned that you had a deep connection with Shirley… it’s very mysterious how everything is so connected! I grew up listening to Shirley’s playing, because my parents were such fans of her music. She’s one of my most favorite piano players! Remember how we told each other that we both had the feeling we’ve known each other already ? That feeling keeps on growing!

Frank Kimbrough: Oh man – I spent so much time with her – I was at the “Close Enough For Love” session, and others she did with Carmen McRae, and with Toots (duo).  I used to go to her house and hang, play, listen with her. She could out-hang any human being on the planet!  Once she, Carmen McRae and I went to her house after one of Carmen’s gigs, and all played for each other – it was amazing.  I miss her very much – she had quite an impact.  Good to see she’s still living on with her music – there’s a new CD out – “Live At the Four Queens” – you should check it out if you haven’t heard it already. 

Pablo: Wow, that’s amazing Frank. Do you have any recordings of you playing with her ? I’m sure she had some stories to tell… I have the “4 Queens” and Carmen McRae records – beautiful records… I’m going to check out “Close Enough for Love” now. My favorite ones are „You Won’t Forget me“, „Loads Of Love“, „Shirley Horn with Horns“, „Embers & Ashes“ and „Travelin’ Light“ – she got a SOUND out of the piano… so deep!

Frank: I don’t think there are any recordings of us together – one funny thing I remember is playing solo at a club in the Village in the 80’s, and she would come by when she was in NYC, but the owner of the club wouldn’t allow her to sit in!  There are some recordings on Steeplechase too – “Lazy Afternoon” is a good one.  Billy Hart played with her when he was a kid (she took him on the road when he was 16), and he kind of got her career restarted by getting her to do a few for Steeplechase – Verve came a little later.  As good as some of these recordings are, none of them really do her justice – there was nothing like sitting one meter away from her in a club. She told a story like no one else. 

Pablo: Thanks Frank, I’ll check out “Lazy Afternoon”. I dig what your saying about her sound as opposed to her sound on the recording. There’s nothing like hearing somebody in person. What are your thoughts on producing the sound on the piano. Where do you think does your beautiful sound originate?

Frank: When I was young I worked for years to get a “singing” sound.  Often, I was playing in places where no one was really listening, so I tried to reach the audience with a beautiful sound rather than with volume, which never works. I think Keith Jarrett actually had a lot to do with that, because his playing often has that “singing” quality” (he used to accompany a choral group when he was young), and I was listening to him a lot at the time. I also played in churches, and with choirs when I was getting started, so it was a natural thing I think. One thing I learned is that to play the sound you hear in your mind’s ear,  it takes a lot of work, and it’s not going to happen in a practice room. Each instrument is different, and each room is different, so we’re always making adjustments to get the sound we’re hearing. I  never “studied” that really, it was something I was hearing, so I just went for it.  I had two very good teachers when I was a kid, but figured out that I could teach myself, so I haven’t looked for guidance in that way since I finished high school.  All the really important work is internal after a certain point. 

Pablo: Yeah, that makes sense. I’m always amazed by your fluidity in your lines, something that I also admire in Keith Jarrett’s or Paul Bley’s playing. It’s something that can’t be calculated, it’s flowing regardless of bar lines, meters, rules (?)… though I guess it comes through deep knowledge and study of those things, but what happens after that? How did you become free?

Frank: How did I become “free”?  That’s an interesting question – one thing that is important is when I was coming up in the 70’s, all music was equal to me – I might listen to Louis Armstrong, and then Weather Report, and then Albert Ayler – I was in an isolated place in North Carolina, and nobody was telling me what to listen to – there weren’t the “camps” that ruin music for people – straight ahead vs. fusion vs. avant-garde or whatever.  I also grew up playing classical music, so I was interested in other things that were a little different – I loved George Crumb’s music, and later became fascinated with Messiaen, Milhaud’s Brazilian Dances,  and John Cage’s prepared piano music.  Later still I became very interested in Morton Feldman’s late works, long pieces that are pianissimo for 90 minutes.  That’s a lot different from transcribing Bud Powell solos.  Also, and perhaps most important,  the idea of time – Bley got me thinking about freedom in time – if you can stretch the harmony, why not the time too?  He made an important impression on me that way – he said that with Sunny Murray,  Milford Graves and Paul Motian coming on the scene, everything changed, and he was right!  So then everything becomes more about phrasing than just metrical time. He called it wave time.  And all my mentors thought that way about time – Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Shirley Horn (playing ballads), and Andrew Hill – each of them, as differently as they played from one another – all had that feeling about time.  And that feeling about time represents becoming free to me. 

Pablo: I know you have a deep admiration for Andrew Hill’s music. Can you explain some of the lessons you learned through listening to him?

Frank: Andrew’s music is unique, as is his playing and musical conception.  He came along as the perfect time, because his music is on the cusp of straight-ahead and what some call the avant-garde, and blends the strongest elements of both. Performances and recordings may be sloppy, sometimes by accident, but more important, when by design. I’ve witnessed multiple occasions when he forgot to bring the charts (once for a new suite), and everyone had to hear their way through the music.  When he had the big band, he wrote pieces and deconstructed them each night, putting them back together in different ways – the A section of tune #3, then a free tenor sax/drums duo and then on to piece #2, letter E, then a solo piano transition into tune #1.  No one on the band knew what was happening next – they used cue cards, and then Andrew would give a big “1”, but the band would have to play the tempo on their own – he didn’t give it to them, so all the players had to be very alert at all times.  He was a very generous player and composer, and wanted everyone to sound like themselves, and for the ensembles to use their individual phrasing, so that it never sounds “tight”.  The idea is called „heterophony“ – where everyone plays their part with their own phrasing.  It’s a stunningly beautiful thing, and the opposite of what most ensembles are going for in terms of playing “together”.  It’s disciplined, yet free.  It’s mysterious,  and conjures images. Sometimes his solo playing reminds me of mountains.  It’s ancient and absolutely modern.  Andrew was first and foremost about human artistic expression. 

Pablo: that sounds amazing! I love that idea of „heterophony“… sometimes we all get too caught up in the desire to „lock in“, sometimes sacrificing one’s personal feelings and individual ideas along the way… Andrew’s way seems like a very inviting and also challenging approach to leading a band. I guess all the masters of this music had their on way of „forcing“ somebody to listen. How do you get somebody to really listen closely? I feel that this is really an art form in itself!

Frank: Listening is an art form, but there’s no way to force someone to do it. It’s a state of mind.   As a teacher, I try to make my students aware of it, because in most of what is called “jazz education”,  the emphasis is on how and what the player is doing – can you play fast, high, stylistically “authentic”, can you play the “correct” scales over the chords?  Books and instruction manuals are written about all these subjects, but you can’t really write a book on how to make the musician standing next to you sound good.  That takes heavy listening and experience, and perhaps some conversation, but the important conversation takes place on the bandstand.  Music is a conversation between the players (and the audience), not just everyone “talking” at once with no regard for the other participants.  Musical conversation is what gives music meaning; without meaning, there’s no music. Listening in real time creates dynamics, structure, and all the things that attract us to a great performance or recording. To really listen, it must be done with intent, and ego needs to take a step back so that the focus is on the group sound, as opposed to how one particular player is playing. ” We” must be substituted for “me.”

Pablo: Absolutely! I didn’t mean „forcing someone to listen“ in a literal sense. I just think you can’t honestly play this music without listening to what’s around you. In that sense the more experienced players subconsciously „force“ you to listen, because their playing oftentimes takes you out of your comfort zone. Usually we start listening more closely once we’re out of our comfort zone. Like when you get lost on a song, you might have gotten yourself in that situation because you’re weren’t really in the moment, weren’t really listening – but usually after that you really start listening! Then there are those players who really go for that feeling especially. Scofield told me that he thinks that Herbie really seeks these moments where everything is almost about to collapse, like almost trying to get lost!

Frank: Exactly!

Pablo: This is an ongoing quest, to really learn how to listen. Lots of it happens on a subconscious level, always accumulating more knowledge as we go along, but some things are also unlocked through actual moments of realizing something. Can you tell me some breakthrough moments in your development in this area?

Frank: Most of those moments occur for me away from the bandstand, after a performance or after an important listening experience hearing other musicians play. On the bandstand, those moments will be fleeting, otherwise you’ll not be in the music you’re making at that point in time (the present).  Most realizations come to me when I’m relaxed, and away from distractions: in the park at night when it’s quiet, on the subway, or on a plane.  Maybe I’m thinking about something that happened in a musical moment, and why and how it happened – what allowed it to happen?  The funny thing is – it can’t be replicated – in only happened then.  You can learn from it, but you can’t repeat it. 

Pablo: I heard that you also like to write away from the piano. I felt it was an important step for me to do that, too. To step away from the instrument, away from my comfortable environment. The stuff I came up with at the piano sometimes seemed too comfortable to me, so I found it very inspiring to start writing music just with pen and paper, only relying on the stuff I really heard inside of me. This really got me to other musical places and in the end it influenced how I was composing at the piano again.  What was that process like for you? I suppose something like „The Spins“ was rather composed at the piano as opposed to „Phoenix“ or „Herbivore“ ? Maybe I’m wrong, it’s just a feeling…

Frank: Yes, I compose mainly away from the piano.  If memory serves, I wrote “The Spins” at the piano, which is unusual, but I had access to one at the time (for many years, I did not have one at home, and even though I have one now, I almost never play it).  “Herbivore” was definitely composed away from the instrument.  “Phoenix” was actually composed by Jimmy Giuffre. 

I don’t compose unless I have an idea – no “kitchen table”, disciplined composing for me.  And I’ve never really thought of myself as a composer, but rather as someone who may occasionally have an idea for a sketch.  My pieces are usually one-page things, and usually very simple.   I try to write so that the musicians have just enough information, but not too much, so they can get away from the chart as quickly as possible.  I don’t write a lot of music; some years there’s almost nothing, and then sometimes a few ideas will come in quick succession.  A few years ago I had a record date approaching, and I needed some new music.  It was Thanksgiving Day, and that evening, after everything got quiet, I wrote 3 pieces in about half an hour, sitting on the couch.  They all appeared out of nowhere, and I still wonder how that happened.  We played them all for a recording I did for Newvelle, a vinyl-only label, and two of the three were on the LP.  We recorded all three, but we couldn’t fit them all on the record.  

Pablo: Oh I’d love to hear that recording for Newvelle Records… It’s with RJ Miller, right? I imagine you guys would sound great together!

What’s important for you when you put together bands? What do you look for in a bassist, drummer … or in any musician?

Frank: When I put a band together, I’m looking for players who are sympathetic in a musical way, are easy going and flexible, both musically and otherwise – I’m not looking for “stars” or “names”.  They need to know a lot of tunes, and be free with themselves.  I never rehearse except for special circumstances (see below), and almost anything could happen on the bandstand or in the studio.  I’m not going to leave a musician hanging or out in the cold, but I also expect them to have a knowledge of standards, yet be willing to go out on a limb without feeling uncomfortable. 

For the Newvelle recording, the band was chosen for me by Elan Mehler, the producer.  When I said yes to his offer to do the record, he told me he had already chosen the other musicians to play with me. This was a total surprise –  No one had ever asked me to do that before, and part of me wanted to resist for obvious reasons.  Back in the late ’90’s, Elan was a student of mine at NYU, so my thinking was  “I taught him, so now I need to trust him.”  Not to trust his judgment was to not trust my own.  The other players were J. R. Miller on drums, Chris von Voorst von Beest on bass, and Andrew Zimmerman on tenor saxophone.  Before the session rehearsal a few days before the recording, I’d never met J. R. or Chris.  Andrew was a fellow student of Elan’s at NYU, and was also in my classes and ensembles there.  I hadn’t seen him for 20 years.  It was a nice reunion with Andrew – he played well in school, but with 20 years more experience, he played my music as well as anyone – he really brought something special to the date. Since Elan asked me to trust him with personnel, I decided to reciprocate and invite a great trumpet player who was studying at Juilliard to participate.  His name is Riley Mulherkar.  I brought him to the second day of recording, and he played beautifully! 

Pablo: Talking about knowing a lot of tunes… I always learn standards through listening to lots of different versions, at first I’ll usually start with singers and then move on to instrumentalists, learning it by ear and then testing my knowledge through transposing it to a couple of other keys, to see if I can rely on my ears and my subconscious. I also have great memories of more experienced players teaching me songs through playing them for me, I really love that! Seeing how others internalize songs, that’s really interesting to me. What’s your process of learning a song? Any specific recollections of people showing you tunes?

Frank: My favorite way to learn a tune is to play it a bit, and then take a walk, going through it in my head until it’s memorized.  I also like to take one tune, and play it for most of an afternoon (when I can find the time), in different keys, different tempos, really taking it apart and putting it back together.  Most of the time though, I’m working away from the piano.  I love getting into bed with a book of music and going through it, hearing everything in my head.  I’ve been doing that recently with Paul Motian’s music – there are two volumes – all of his tunes, in his hand – over 120 of them.  Doing this away from the piano opens things up so that you don’t fall into habits/muscle memory and the comfort zone that we automatically go to when playing something for the first time.  Sometimes one tune will occupy my brain for days, even weeks at a time.  It can be a kind of torture because I feel like it’s overtaken me, but in the end I REALLY know that tune.  It takes time.

Many years ago I had a solo piano gig at a club in Greenwich Village.  On weekends I played opposite another pianist 40 years my senior.  We’d listen to each other play, and he’d often make comments about how I’d played.  I learned a lot listening to him……he knew thousands of tunes.  During that time in my life I didn’t have a piano in my apartment, so I’d transcribe tunes from cassette tapes, then take my walk and memorize them, and then play them that night -first tune of the first set, and last tune of the last set.  It was a long gig – 6 hours, so if I could still remember the song at the end of the night, I could remember it and make it part of my repertoire.  I also made 90 minute tapes of one tune, different players, singers, different keys, different tempos, different time signatures sometimes.  I recognized that Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk had several tunes in common in their repertoires, so I studied how they each dealt with those tunes – I Should Care, Lover Man, Everything Happens to Me, and others.  It was fascinating how different their approaches were, and how totally beautiful.

I’ve always loved unique composers, and love to get inside their music.  Paul Bley didn’t call himself a composer, but he used the American Songbook all the time – he didn’t play the melodies, and he’d alter the chords and the form, therefore he’s a composer, but each tune is played only once.  Andrew Hill’s tunes have real structural integrity, and can be played many different ways. Annette Peacock is one of my favorites – nobody plays her music, but it’s absolutely beautiful – stark, dark landscapes that are somewhat dreamlike.  Motian is another favorite.  Duke Ellington, Monk, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill – they all have so much to offer, and if you approach the music organically and honestly, you can play it all and make it work. Shirley Horn wasn’t a composer, but she LIVED the song, almost as if she was writing it right in front of you.  Sitting at her side at gigs was an amazing experience. Living in New York City has allowed me to have many an unforgettable night – whether hearing/watching Bley’s abstractions of standards, Hill’s always evolving and mysterious ways, Shirley’s take on standards, or so many others that I don’t have the space to mention here. 

Pablo: Oh, I love this Frank… I also like to practice a lot in my head, away from the piano. I feel like everything goes deeper and as you said you’re less bound to the instrument, you yourself are the instrument! If you can play it your head, you can usually play it at the instrument, too. Walter Gieseking, one of my main heroes on the piano was a great example for that, he really relied on internalization of the music through a deep immersion of the score and really taking apart every parameter of the musical contents. It’s such a great way to learn.

Can you talk a bit about Annette Peacock and her influence on you?

Frank: I discovered Annette’s music through Paul Bley’s ’60’s recordings, especially “Blood” on Fontana, and others – “Ramblin'”, Virtuosi, and of course his solo recording “Open To Love”.  Her tunes have been described as landscapes for improvisation.  They are very specific in how they’re notated, yet very open at the same time.  I think that’s one thing that draws me to her work.  Most of the tunes have lyrics, and in those lyrics Annette bares her soul in the most intimate way.  The tunes have a certain inevitability about them, and that’s rare.  Her music is simple yet complex, and emotionally quite raw, but there are also tunes that are very humorous.  Some of my favorites are: “Touching”, “Nothing Ever Was Anyway”, “Dreams”and “Butterflies”, all of which are pretty fragile and stark, but still very rich and romantic.  “Blood” is violent, and “Cartoon” is really funny. ” Mr. Joy” is almost breezy – – just a couple of chords and a lyrical melody. 

I have scores to quite a few of these pieces, and they’re very detailed.  When I was in my mid-twenties I tried to transcribe them as best I could, but didn’t really trust the work I’d done because the time in these tunes is so loose.  It was very difficult to tell how she might have imagined them.  25 years later, I finally got my hands on the original charts thanks to Marilyn Crispell and Bley’s archives in Ottawa.  They are beautiful, and I’m told they’re in Paul Bley’s hand.  They have the vocal part, piano part, bass part and chord changes, so they really are quite specific.  I met with Annette once in Woodstock, and told her that her compositions’ specificity reminded me of Monk’s music – the music really need to be studied and played correctly in order to get the sound. Voicings need to be correct, and phrasing is very important, in part because her music, as opposed to Monk’s, is almost never in strict time.  The compositions I’m talking about were mostly composed in the period of 1965 – 67, when she was Paul’s partner, and writing for him and/or his trio.  After that, her composing and general vibe went much more in the direction of rock and electric music.  Her “An Acrobat’s Heart” recording  on ECM brought her back into an acoustic environment, this time with her vocals and piano and a string quartet, which she arranged.  It’s a beautiful recording that like most of her work I feel has been rather overlooked. Her music is not easy listening, but I think it’s so emotional and deep and different that more people should hear it and appreciate it.  

Pablo: That’s beautiful, Frank! I had a week this summer during which only listened to „Dreams“, I was obsessing over it. It was almost like a siren song, I couldn’t stop listening and I kept noticing new things all the time. What a vibe!

You nailed it completely, her music is so open and yet so specific. The same thing could be said about Carla Bley’s music as well. I guess that was one of the reasons why Paul Bley was attracted to both their compositions so much. They encourage creativity and exploration and yet they could also totally stand on their own without always having to lead into an improvisation.

Hearing Carla talk about that Paul apparently tried to get Sonny Rollins to play some of Carla’s pieces blew my mind. I think they never got around to do it in the end, but just the thought of Sonny playing one of her pieces makes me smile. Imagine Sonny’s sound on something like „Calls“ !

You recently recorded the all of Thelonious Monk’s compositions for an upcoming record of yours that I can’t wait to hear! How did you go about it on a practical level? That’s about 70 songs- a big undertaking! How did you approach the tunes during the recording? Did write out charts of those tunes that your bandmates hadn’t learned before or did everybody do his own research and preparation in advance?

Frank: Yes, the record is called “Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk”.  It will be released in late November this year.   The other players are Scott Robinson, Rufus Reid, and Billy Drummond.  The recording came about when we played a gig at the Jazz Standard in New York.  After the first set, a friend approached me about doing the entire repertoire, and after some discussion, we decided we could do it.  For that gig, I had picked the tunes in advance, and sent a list of tunes to Scott, Rufus and Billy.  We used the Thelonious Monk Fakebook, which is a book that includes all of his tunes, and they are transcribed faithfully from particular recordings by Monk. Monk’s music is probably some of the most specific in jazz, so that book came in very handy.  I hear too many people playing his music that I don’t think have done the research required to play it well, and I didn’t want that to happen with our session.  We all spent a lot of time and did a lot of work studying the music and listening.   We did not rehearse, but met at the soundcheck and played through some of the melodies. After we decided to do the recording, we did two nights last April at Jazz at Kitano, a small club.  Scott couldn’t make the first night, so we played trio, and he joined us for the second night.  Again, there were no rehearsals.  We played about 15 tunes on each of the three gigs, so we got through about 45 tunes.  Everyone had the music, and we all worked on the music separately.  Sometimes there were questions about certain differences in different Monk recordings, but we mostly worked that stuff out once we got to the studio. 

I’d worked on many projects with the engineer, Matt Balitsaris, and he suggested that I figure out a sequence for each of the 6 CDs to be recorded before we began recording, so I did that, and sent the list to the others so they would know what we’d be doing.  Monk wrote 12 blues, and they’re all in Bb, so I put 2 of them on each CD.  Then I took the ballads and spread them out the same way, and did the same with the more difficult tunes.  Then I filled in the rest. taking into consideration the keys and feels of the tunes.  The end result is that the session unfolds almost in chronological order.  There are a few deviations, but not many. 

We did 2 three-day sessions, working from 11 in the morning until 5 or 6 in the evening.  We took 3 days off between the sessions.  We recorded in a 200 year-old barn in the country, so there were no distractions. We stayed at a little inn not far from the studio, so we had every meal together during the sessions – that gave us time to hang out and relax in each others’ company, which was wonderful – we had a great time!

Each day we’d  arrive, and just “set ’em up and knock ’em down.  There were no arrangements aside from little ideas that we night have on the spur of the moment.  I asked Scott to decide which instruments he’s play on each tune.  He played mostly tenor saxophone, but also plays bass saxophone, bass clarinet, contrabass sarrusophone, trumpet, and echo cornet.  The first tune we played on the first day was Thelonious, and he played trumpet on the first 2 A sections, then tenor from the bridge to the end of the melody, and solos on tenor and trumpet. 

Rufus wanted to play the melody on “Monk’s Mood”, so that’s how that happened – he also wanted to play the melody on “‘Round Midnight” in C minor (that was actually the original key) before the band comes in in Eb minor…..very simple, organic ideas that went down very easily.  There was so stress, no ego – a totally fun and gratifying experience.  We did 30 of the tunes in one take, and most of the rest in 2 takes.  There were maybe three or four tunes that took three, mostly at the end of the session days when we were a little tired. 

Pablo: My man – Frank!!! I can’t thank you enough for taking so much time to answer my questions in such great detail. I’m really enjoyed this process, it has been highly inspirational for me.

Frank: Great! It’s been a pleasure!

 

 

 

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