Misha Mengenberg / Steve Lacy / George Lewis / Arjen Gorter / Han Bennink:
Change Of Season
|Jazz was strictly verboten by the professor and my pa.
Recorded in 1984
|1/||House Party Starting||Herbie Nichols||7:33|
|5/||Change Of Season||6:42|
Recorded on July 2 and 3, 1984 at Barigozzi Studio, Milano (Italy). Engineer: Giancarlo Barigozzi.
Mastering: Gennaro Carone, PhonoComp, Tribiano-Milano (Italy).
Producer: Giovanni Bonandrini.
Cover photography: Mirko R. Boscolo.Cover art: Niridan.
Herbie Nichols' was a career that was maddeningly frustrating even for those of us who admired his music; for him it was a treadmill through a gauntlet, a ceaseless battle in which his only weapon, a talent that was too subtle for the casual listener and too demanding for the lazy improvisor, worked against him. Life, always rough on the artistic innovator, shafted Herbie Nichols beyond its usual standards. And death has done him no favor either, for a pitifully small sampling ofthe work of this prolific and versatile composer/pianist survives for posterity.
For this reason, we Herbie Nichols aficionados must applaud the excellent musicians who perform on this record and on Regeneration (SN 1054) which was devoted half to the compositions of Nichols and half to those of Thelonious Monk, Herbie's contemporary and soul mate. Not only have they produced here with an unusually moving and provocative record, they also have provided a service for a generation of jazz lovers that may not know Herbie Nichols music.
Herbie Nichols was born in 1919 in New York City of West Indian parentage. From the age of seven until fourteen, he studied classical piano. "Jazz", he wrote, "was strictly verboten by the professor and my pa." He did form a small jazz combo in high school that was regarded as highly professional by those who heard it. He joined bassist George Duvivier in the famous Royal Baron Orchestra in 1937, and in 1938 went to work in Jimmy Monroe's notorious Uptown House with the popular tenor saxophonist Floyd "Horsecollar" Williams. At Monroe's Herbie was one of the brightest of a glowing group of young revolutionaries, but he was too straight, or "square" as they said in those days, to fit in socially with the bebop set, and they seldom called him for jobs. Drafted in 1941, he began writing songs in the army and by the time that he died he had composed over 100.
Herbie returned to New York after the army and began the cycle that was to conclude his life. He was rarely able to find a job that would allow him any prominence, or even the opportunity to play contemporary music. Because he developed musically during the pre-bop years, Herbie was facile in the New Orleans, swing or bebop styles, though his own style was avant-garde for the time: a modern expression based in New York stride like Monk's only more fluid. Still, the modernists found him too virtuous and avoided him, leaving him to those who played in the swing and even New Orleans styles for employment. He said, "The swing musicians... had resisted bebop, sure but they did prefer to use the modern drummer if they could adapt to the old styles. That meant the bass and piano had to know both styles, too."
Thus Herbie Nichols' includes work with musicians like Hall "Cornbread" Singer, Danny Barker, Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby Buster Bailey, Maxine Sullivan, Snub Moseley (who sometimes played a slide saxophone), Edgar Sampson, Milt Larkin, Wilbur de Paris, Arnett Cobb and Lucky Thompson. They all were good to excellent musicians, but only the Jacquet and Thompson ensembles allowed Nichols to be himself. And things got worse from there, for most of the work that Herbie was getting in the last years of his life (he died of leukemia in 1964) was with revivalist Dixieland bands.
The salvation of Herbie Nichols' place in jazz history has been based, up to now, on two sets of recorded releases: a trio date that he led on Bethlehem that featured drummer Danny Richmond and a two LP set now available on Blue Note entitled "The Third World". I commend them to you along with this record, particularly the "Third World" set, for it catches Herbie in four recording sessions in 1955 and 1956. The '55 dates had Herbie with Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey on drums while the '56 dates saw Herbie with McKibbon and Teddy Kotick on bass and Max Roach on drums. It is from that set that most of the compositions on this record were taken.
The sides with Max Roach are among my desert island selections. I'll even say that, for me, the sets with Max are the most satisfying, the most realized piano trio music in all of jazz. Here was a theme and variations improvisor who could affect the most profound changes in the mood of a theme with the most subtle gradations in tempo and time. Here was a constructionist whose sense of rubato was perfect. Here was a composer who understood better than any other pianist, with the possible exception of Thelonious Monk, how to integrate a drum's line into his melody. Here is what Herbie, a deep student at African music long before it was a popular subject, wrote about the drum: "There are reasons why the best jazz must 'sound' the same as it did in the beginning. I keep remembering that the overtone of 'fifths' created by the beautiful tones of any ordinary tuned drum was purely the first rnusic - the precursor of the historic major scale, no less, which was built on the same principles. That is why the cycle of 'fifths' is so prevalent in elemental jazz. "And so, we can readily understand why drummers start to 'drop bombs' to usher in the new music... Each 'bomb' created a newly rich and wholly unexpected series of overtones, beginning in the lower registers. That is why the pianists became so percussive in their left hands... The jazz 'sound' is surely a living thing and as a piano player I find it mostly in old uprights."
House Party Starting, like most Herbie Nichols compositions, is programmatic in that it attempts to describe a scene, in this case the feel of a party from the discomfort of the first guests' arrival to the point at which the house is full and everybody is loose. This treatment begins with a piano-drum introduction similar to the original Nichols-Roach version and then moves to the full ensemble. It is appropriately unorthodox that the first solo is taken by Arjen Gorter, and it is an exact, well considered statement.
Misha Mengelberg follows with a brief solo which refers to Herbie's style by virtue of those dissonances in the left hand near the end, and this is typical of a kind of liberating eclecticism that contemporary pianists like Mengelberg have adopted. The versatile George Lewis follows, and shows us why he is considered to be the most gifted trombonist to arrive on the scene in years.
Next is Steve Lacy, who has not been sufficiently accredited with his role in keeping the soprano sax alive in the years between Sidney Bechet and John Coltrane. His is a solo full of warmth, fully exploring the rather difficult harmonic material which belies the seeming simplicity of the melody.
The Happenings is presented more succinctly. Mengelberg's dirge-like opening leads us into a witty song, wittily played by the soloists, beginning with Lewis, who can slur, trill, stutter and slide with the best of them, and Lacy, who clearly was prepared for Nichols' music by his association with Monk. Monk's influence on Mengelberg is apparent in Misha's chorus, particularly in his backbeat sense of time.
Step Tempest again uses Herbie's characteristic piano-drum intro before the statement of the theme by the full ensemble. George Lewis again has the first solo, which he begins with a quotation from Monk. This is another fine statement by the trombonist, with good dialogue with Mengelberg on piano. Misha leads Lacy in another exciting colloquy and then plays a lovely chorus of his own before the full ensemble concludes this lovely tune.
Hangover Triangle is the fastest of the selections on the first side. After impressive choruses by Mengelberg Lewis and Lacy, Han Bennink finally is given a chance to show us his consider able ability.
Change of Seasons is again an example of Herbie Nichols' descriptive gifts as he attempts to equate musical colors with the tonalities of nature. Mengelberg's solo here is a most sensitive statement; economical yet forceful. Steve Lacy follows reflectively, building carefully on Nichols' demanding harmonies. Lewis is more romantic than most people would expect from him in his solo. Lacy's overtones at the end of the piece are apt. with muted strings, strange woodwork and uneven 'innards' have a way of giving up fast and resonant overtones. Each note shoots back at you like a bass drum. "In such situations... I let my self go and use any kind of unorthodox touch needed to dig out the strange 'sounds' which I know are in the instrument."
There is a lot of social aesthetic thought to consider in that statement just as there is a lot of nuance to be extrapolated from the compositions of Herbie Nichols, as the musicians on this record certainly have done.
Spinning Song is one of Nichols' more haunting melodies, Lacy takes the first tum impressively, followed by another bit of assertive Iyricism by George Lewis. Mengelberg again takes his stance between the styles of Nichols and Monk, using some of the dissonances and off-times of the latter and the more introspective yet orchestral approach of the former. The ensemble returns with the constructive repetition that Nichols' compositions lend themselves to until the pianist takes the tune out.
Terpsichore, as the name suggests, was Nichols' paean to dancers. It integrates the drum into the melodic lines just as the tap lines of Barry Laurence would sound almost melodic in the context of the accompaniment of an excellent jazz group. Bennink's role is elevated throughout this selection, and that he can assume a more prominent attitude without overwhelming the other soloists is testament to his skill and maturity.
All in all, this is a first-rate record. A group of musicians of international stature who play cooperatively with no one feeling an apparent need to dominate. There is a commitment to subsume their considerable individual skills within the goal of the collective, which is to reintroduce the music of this most neglected jazz genius, Herbie Nichols, to today's generation of jazz lovers.
I hope that other musicians will pick up on what they are doing, for these and dozens of other Herbie Nichols compositions should be a standard part of the jazz repertoire, as familiar to the generations of music lovers as the better-known writing of Ellington and Monk and the other originals.
A.B. Spellman (excerpt from liner notes)