RIP Frank Kimbrough

Word has come that jazz pianist Frank Kimbrough has died of a sudden heart attack.

A few memories:

One of the very first concerts I saw in NYC in the fall of 1991 was a trio of Frank, Ben Allison, and Jeff Williams at some obscure venue in the East Village. It was really great, in part because Frank was clearly influenced by Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, and Paul Bley. I was interested in these sort of approaches as well…it was sort of validating to arrive from the cornfields of Wisconsin and hear such a good trio playing just the kind of repertoire I wanted to hear.

A few years later I had an informal lesson with Frank; he didn’t actually call it a lesson, but he showed me a few things when he dropped by my apartment one day. We played a duo version of Sonny Rollins’s “Pent Up House” and I was appalled by how much better he played the changes than me. That was the real lesson.

In 1998, Frank couldn’t make a rehearsal with Maria Schneider and sent me in his place. I showed up thinking it would be not very hard — big band piano is usually not too taxing — but then Schneider’s score turned out to be a complex dance suite in mixed meter with a fast and exposed piano part. I’m a good sight-reader but I doubt Schneider formed a positive impression of me that day. That was another lesson.

Frank was part of the Jazz Composers Collective, a group with Ben Allison, Ted Nash, Ron Horton, and others. They programmed original music at a series held at the Greenwich House Music School. One of the best sets of the many I heard there in the ’90s was a trio with Frank, Ben Allison, and Jeff Ballard. The opening piece was unforgettable, where Frank offered some bluesy triadic piano riffs before the bass and drums came in with controlled chaos. When I told Frank how much I liked that piece, he suggested I check out Andrew Hill’s Strange Serenade with Alan Silva and Freddie Waits. In time I’d record “Strange Serenade” duo with Nasheet Waits; my first piano gestures are certainly less purely Hill than an interpretation of what I heard from Frank at that Greenwich House Music School gig.

After Paul Bley died, I organized a memorial concert on the Greenwich House Music School stage. Frank was the Paul Bley expert, and he showed up with a stack of Annette Peacock music. In a way I wish I had made the concert more about playing those Peacock and Carla Bley melodies; some of the best stuff that night was simply Frank reading through “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway” and “Butterflies” at the soundcheck.

Frank said the most virtuosic Paul Bley piano performance was “Blood” on Live in Haarlem. Frank said the best Barry Altschul on record with Bley was “Mazatlan” on Touching.

As a leader, Frank’s recorded legacy includes a nice trio album with Masa Kamaguchi and Paul Motian and a complete (!) survey of Thelonious Monk with Scott Robinson, Rufus Reid, and Billy Drummond.

His unaccompanied performance of Motian’s “It Should’ve Happened A Long Time Ago” is an appropriate memorial listen.