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Remember “Lady Sings the Blues”? It’s that lovely ballad made famous by Billie Holiday, it’s the title of her autobiography, and, unfortunately, it’s the name of that overwrought movie about her featuring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams. Now, name the composer of that tune. Stuck? Well, the answer is Herbie Nichols, a pianist and composer whose idiosyncratic artistry is often hailed as on par with Thelonious Monk’s. Not that many people know about Nichols—a pioneer in the early stages of bebop and free jazz, who lived and died in relative obscurity.
The title of Nichols’ best-known waltz, “Love, Gloom, Cash, Love,” makes a telling statement about his love-hate relationship with jazz’s cutthroat money jungle, which left him perennially strapped. He could construct lively, humorous melodies akin to Monk’s as well as songs of unsettling mystery and melancholy, but his work was, on the whole, met by indifference. And his disdain for the ugliness of the music business only distanced him farther from the ’50s jazz vanguard. His abstract harmonic designs yearned for large-scale ensemble treatments, but because he didn’t have any money, Nichols would see his musical concepts translated mostly by soloists or trios. The handful of albums Nichols recorded on Blue Note and Bethlehem are now regarded as treasures, but they sold poorly upon their initial releases, and the artist faded into oblivion.
The past decade has brought a renewed interest in Nichols’ music. Adventurers like pianist Geri Allen, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and drummer Paul Motian have been incorporating Nichols’ compositions in their repertoires. Nichols’ greatest champion, however, is the Herbie Nichols Project, a New York City-based sextet, whose newest album, Dr. Cyclops’ Dream, continues to recover Nichols’ peculiar gifts.
Dr. Cyclops’ Dream follows up the Project’s 1996 record, Love Is Proximity. Whereas that first release retooled mostly Nichols tunes that had already been recorded, this latest endeavor emphasizes the obscurity of Nichols’ legacy by featuring a handful of his compositions that never left the page: The Project’s trumpeter, Ron Horton, exhumed a Library of Congress collection of some of Nichols’ unrecorded scores that had no notations of tempo or dynamics.
Horton and the rest of the Project’s members are astute composers in their own right who teeter elegantly between the worlds of bebop and the avant-garde. Dr. Cyclops’ Dream attests to both Nichols’ compositional ingenuity and the Project’s interpretive brilliance. (The Project is a part of the larger Jazz Composers Collective, a nonprofit group of mostly New York-based musicians who practice notated composition as much as they do free improvisation. When they solo, their improvisations are usually delivered in a well-paced, logical manner that’s often emotionally sweeping without being grotesquely emotive.) Because most of these songs were never recorded, they offer an ideal canvas for creative reconstructions.
Apparently working from what scarce written history exists on Nichols, intensive listening to his small discography, and the titles of the compositions, the Project has crafted intriguing interpretations of some of his unrecorded material, illustrating the diversity and breadth of his songbook. On “Bartok,” saxophonists Ted Nash and Michael Blake unleash a lopsided melody that faintly sounds like the I Love Lucy theme song, interspersed with glowing solos from pianist Frank Kimbrough and Horton. The multisectional piece aptly reveals Nichols’ fascination with and knowledge of European classical music. Likewise, the title track betrays Nichols’ chamber-music leanings; bassist Ben Allison arranges a skulking Minguslike figure of arco bass and bass clarinet brooding beneath Horton’s taut trumpet, which is later followed by a sumptuous tenor solo from Blake.
Probably owing to limited knowledge of their texts, songs like “I’ve Got Those Classic Blues” and “Dream Time” run less than two minutes, whereas previously documented songs like the bipolar blues number “Valse Macabre” and the sultry “Beyond Recall” flesh out to a considerably greater length. The extreme sadness that often characterized Nichols’ compositions comes to the fore in Horton and Kimbrough’s gripping duet on “The Bebop Waltz” and Nash’s salty performance on “Dream Time.” But Nichols’ music wasn’t all about doom and gloom: Despite a heavy emphasis on minor keys, “Riff Primitif,” with its brisk rhythm and oblique melody, is one of Nichols’ most rousing compositions.
We may never truly know how Nichols intended the works on Dr. Cyclops’ Dream to be performed. In sketches of “IDH” and “Cro-Mag at T’s,” which later evolved into “It Didn’t Happen,” and “Cro-Magnon Nights,” respectively, we’re given brief glimpses of some of his ingenious work-in-progress. Nevertheless, the album wonderfully realizes Nichols’ dream of having his material performed by a larger ensemble.
On Rhyme & Reason, Herbie Nichols Project reedist Nash seems to have channeled Nichols’ zeal for danceable melodies and personal themes into his own burgeoning songbook. By weaving a string quartet with a conventional jazz quartet, Nash has scripted an alluring suite that successfully merges the worlds of European chamber music and modern bebop without falling prey to the rhythmic staidness of Third Stream music.
Nash is a magnificent composer who benefits from his tenure with both the Jazz Composers Collective and the Lincoln Center’s Jazz Orchestra. He’s also boss on the tenor saxophone. He produces a biting, martini-dry tone in reflective ballad duets—with Kimbrough on “Prana” and Allison on “Rhyme.”
Ballads find him in ideal form, but it’s not as though Nash is rhythmically challenged; his spirited exchanges with trumpet guru Wynton Marsalis on the picturesque “Apollo 9” and the twining, infectious melody he states with Marsalis and violinist Miri Ben-Ari create some of the most riveting moments on the album. Marsalis, in particular, contributes some astounding solos that are appealing largely because he avoids the aggressive vocalization techniques that lately have run rampant in his playing. Although Nash is featured mostly on tenor sax, he convincingly presents his credentials on clarinet and flute as well.
Nash appears to be a secure bandleader who gives his cohorts ample room to deliver gorgeous statements. Violist Ron Lawrence saws a jolting solo on the swirling “Spirit Dance”; cellist Tomas Ulrich delivers some haunting asides on the beautiful ballad “Longing” and the pensive duet with Kimbrough in “Free Choice.” Like the music of Nichols, Nash’s Rhyme & Reason is a splendid sleeper that’s both thought-provoking and poignant. The only shame surrounding both it and Dr. Cyclops’ Dream is that neither will have an audience in the composer himself. CP