Interview with Frank Kimbrough
Tafuri: Frank, you play in a variety of different groups from small (for example, your duo with Joe Locke) to medium (the Herbie Nichols Project bands) to "big" (Maria Schneider's Orchestra). How does playing in a trio affect you and your playing and how, if at all, does playing in a trio affect your approach?
Kimbrough: I enjoy playing in a variety of situations, but the trio is my favorite way to express myself. It's the best setting for me to put my own concepts of harmony, time, and group dynamics into practice, and because there are only three players, the music tends to develop organically and to be more interactive. In a word, it's liberating.
Tafuri: A few of the groups in which you participate regularly have names that reflect a more collective nature (like the Herbie Nichols Project or Noumena), even though in some ways you "lead" them. So, I find it interesting that you call this the "Frank Kimbrough Trio" — not (like) "Kimbrough-Allison-Ballard" or some contrived name — even though you've mentioned on more than one occasion that the trio is a cooperative effort. Why is that? Why not come up with a name like "Noumena" for the group?
Kimbrough: When I pick players for the trio, or for any other group, I pick them for their judgment, for what they bring to the table. It's a cooperative effort in that I don't ask anything of anyone except that they participate fully in the experience of making music together. I don't want or need accompanists. I want interactivity and creative input. I trust the other musicians completely, and would never presume to tell anyone how to play. I just try to set up a situation where we can all be ourselves and go home happy at the end of the night. Having said that, I suppose I call it the Frank Kimbrough Trio mainly for pragmatic reasons — there's a history in jazz of pianists leading trios, and of those trios going by the leader's name. Mostly though, it's so you know where to look in the record store.
Tafuri: I've heard the Frank Kimbrough Trio with other drummers. What do you think Jeff Ballard brings to the trio?
Kimbrough: I feel a certain kinship with both Ben and Jeff that's hard to put into words. Ben and I have had more opportunities to develop our musical relationship, but with Jeff it's almost magical because we don't play together as often, but that 'thing' is still there. He's studied so many different types of drumming, but he's filtered all of that in a way that's absolutely original. And the way he listens . . I still remember the first time we played together - I was stunned by his playing, and ran home and called a studio immediately because I knew I wanted to document what we could do together.
Tafuri: It seems as though you really like words. I mean, I don't think we've ever specifically talked about "words" but, speaking before as I did of the distinctive name "Noumena" — a word that caused more than one music lover (including yours truly) to go to the dictionary, where did you come up with "Quickening" and why did you give that name to the title track?
Kimbrough: I like words. I've done crossword puzzles every day for twenty years, and when I go on the road, I always take a big book of New York Times' Sunday crosswords. Two or three good ones can get me across the country or to Europe. "Quickening" is a word that could be perceived in several different ways, but the definition I'm thinking about is a coming to life: a beginning, where something — a person, an idea, a piece of music — takes on a life of its own. That's what happens when we play music. Otherwise, it's just notes on a page.
Tafuri: I've played "Quickening" [the title track] for more than several people (including a couple musicians) — you know, the old blindfold test — and more than one of them has blurted out Paul Bley or even early [Keith] Jarrett as guesses. Did either of those musicians influence you and, if so, in what ways?
Kimbrough: I'm influenced by both of them. When I was in school, I wore out any recording of Keith's that I could find — especially the records by the quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. There are times that band makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up — even 25 years after first hearing them. They played so free, yet so together. I've never met Keith, but I admire him tremendously. My relationship with Paul Bley is different; he's been a mentor of sorts for many years, and I collect his recordings like a kid collects baseball cards. The thing about Paul that I admire most is the comprehensiveness of his career: he's played with everyone from Lester Young to Evan Parker, he ran his own record company, produced videos, etc. He also showed me how to look at the other side of any coin musically and otherwise. I think that's where he influenced me most.
Tafuri: "TMI" is one of those tunes that's gotten a real "re-working" for this album. It's one of the first tunes I ever heard you play when we first met and, for a long time (maybe still), it's one of my favorite tunes of yours. Refresh my memory: wasn't it an abbreviation for Three Mile Island?
Kimbrough: A lot of people think it's about Three Mile Island, but it's not — "TMI" is simply Tim, spelled sideways. Nutty, I know, but I wrote it many years ago with a saxophonist friend (Tim Chambers) in mind.
Tafuri: Well, besides wanting to follow up on the title and, perhaps, its impetus, the "funked up" reworking of that bluesy tune reminds me a little of Jarrett's funky version of "God Bless the Child" on Standards . . . I don't remember if it was volume 1 or 2. It certainly sounds like "y'all" were having a good time . . .
Kimbrough: We were having a good time all right, though I think that this version of TMI may have been influenced more by Howlin' Wolf than Jarrett. It's really about the blues — not the 12 bar variety, but what is sometimes referred to as the natural blues — where the chords change when they need to, and the meter may change from one bar to the next. This tune was composed without bar lines. We always played it very freely, out of time. Then one day this version just happened. There was little or no rehearsal for this concert — and I remember that Jeff was quite surprised at first by the way we were playing it — but of course that's why we like to play together. We're always surprising each other. "Cascade Rising" was untitled at the time, and at the concert I made an announcement to that effect. I've always have a hard time coming up with titles for my tunes. A couple days after the concert we got an email at the Jazz Composers Collective suggesting this title. The suggestion came from someone I don't know, but I thought the title was a good one, so to whomever emailed us that day, thanks!
Tafuri: That's pretty cool. That's sort of interaction "Svengali" is a tango of sorts. It's very minor and meant to sound a little menacing. The title is an anagram for Gil Evans, who inspired the piece. I believe it was Gerry Mulligan who came up with the anagram, and I think it's funny because Gil was a Svengali in a sense to many musicians, though I think the word is usually associated with an evil person, and Gil was as sweet a guy as you could ever meet. "Chant" is a piece that was improvised in the studio for our first recording. We just started playing this simple four note theme, and went from there. It's played so that time is implied, but never actually stated. Think of the whole tune as a big "one," with all kinds of time stated within the "one." It's totally open and can go anywhere, with starts and stops and lots of interactivity along the way — a journey for the trio's collective imagination. "Quickening," "Chant," "Clara's Room," and "Ancestor" all initially appeared on Chant, my first recording with this trio, on Igmod records. Igmod was an independent label that unfortunately went out of business shortly after Chant was released, so a lot of people have never heard it. This concert celebrated its release, and because we played several of the tunes from the CD, it never occurred to me to release it until after Igmod went under.