Jelly Home

all the articles, back to 1995

what’s Jelly got to do with it?

The Jelly Jar
factoids, jokes & links

search / tips


Buy now at

Buell Neidlinger Quintet
Blue Chopsticks, a Portrait of Herbie Nichols, K2B2 Records CD K2B2 3169

Idiosyncratic arrangements of music by a neglected jazz master

Herbie Nichols is a perennially neglected jazz pianist and composer. He recorded less than half of his 170 compositions on three classic trio albums for Blue Note and one for Bethlehem before dying of leukemia at the age of 43 in 1963. He is often compared to Thelonious Monk, and his piano playing and compositions certainly do have some of the harmonic angularity people associate with Monk. But he had a very distinctive sound of his own, more melancholy and, for lack of a better word, poetic than Monk in many ways. In fact, Nichols was something of a poet, as the titles to his tunes suggest. And he was fully Monk's equal in the quality and individuality of his tunes. He is held in high critical esteem within jazz, although his tunes are still not widely recorded. (Record labels and artists with an eye toward saleability are not going to venture too far afield. When nightclub fans recognize Monk's "Round Midnight" and applaud themselves for doing so, but get up to buy another round of drinks during Nichols' "Applejackin," which tune do you think will get performed more?) Outside of jazz circles, the only tune of his anyone is likely to know is "The Lady Sings the Blues," which Billie Holiday set lyrics to and adopted for the title of her autobiography.

Buell Neidlinger is one of those polymath musicians who can seemingly do anything. A self-taught bass player (except on this album) who began playing with avant-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor in one of his first groups, he did a two-year stint with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and for the last fifteen years or so has been performing and recording bluegrass-flavored jazz. He knew Nichols when both were starting out in the New York jazz scene in the mid-'50s, and promised Nichols he would someday record his compositions with brass and strings. The result is this remarkable tribute album, which comes in a very attractive three-fold paperboard case.

Check out the lineup, and you'll see that this is "chamber jazz," with the strings filling in for bass and drums. Marty Krystall plays tenor and soprano and Hugh Shick trumpet and trombone, giving a nice variety of sound. Still, if you're expecting a blazing bop or fusion ensemble, you'll be disappointed. This is quiet music that requires a bit of attention, although Neidlinger craftily manages to generate some heat by adopting bluegrass riffs, especially with Richard Greene's violin. (Yep, the same Richard Greene who was in the early rock fusion band Seatrain.) I imagine Nichols was asking Neidlinger to put together a more traditional string ensemble with brass section and full orchestration-something like Charlie Parker's recordings with strings. But this is the '90s, so a little "corporate downsizing" gives us this group, which is still quite a bit larger than Nichols' trio. It is fascinating to hear some of Nichols' harmonies unraveled; his own trio recordings require very close listening, especially to what the left hand is playing, to get a sense of the special nature of his music.

In addition to doing the intriguing arrangements, Neidlinger, on cello, is the driving force behind this CD. His touch is just right, keeping the pulse flowing while adding grace notes at well-chosen places. Most of the tunes are taken slightly slower than on Nichols' original recordings, although "Cro-Magnon Nights" rips. They are also longer than Nichols' originals, which play much like sketches to these expanded versions. The slower tempo brings out a real sense of mystery in "2300 Skidoo." Shick takes a pensive solo on muted trumpet, and Krystall meditates on tenor while the strings slither in the background. Greene has a nice off-tempo solo on "Portrait of Ucha." The contrast between Nichols' original recording of "The Gig" and this version is marked. The original is one of Nichols' brightest recordings. Neidlinger's version starts serenely, then erupts into a fiddle break reminiscent of "Orange Blossom Special." "Love, Gloom, Cash, Love," one of Nichols' best titles and a beautiful melody, is a crisp bop waltz in the original, and a melancholy country waltz in this version. "The Lady Sings the Blues" is a dignified lament, with Greene's violin the chief mourner. This tune is done mostly by the strings, with brief additions of muted trombone and tenor sax that cap the climax of the arch-like trajectory of the arrangement. "Query" starts off with Krystall posing a solo question on soprano sax, which is then answered by a jaunty, almost calypso-ish ensemble. On "Nick at T's," Neidlinger's arrangement picks up a repeated figure that Nichols used only briefly at the beginning of his own recording of the tune, and turns it into a recurring theme of chicken-cluck fiddling.

As much as I like this CD, I have to say it sounds like a bit of a hurry-up session, without the time to rehearse thoroughly or set up the mikes properly. The performance is pretty ragged in spots, with several fluffed and just plain wrong notes. And the muffled sound makes it sometimes hard to tell if the trumpet is muted or not. Nevertheless, it is a real pleasure to hear Nichols exquisite miniatures turned into richer, more varied works. Rather like seeing an oil painting after living with the artist's pencil sketches for forty years. This is a welcome addition to the meager Herbie Nichols library, and for that I am very grateful.--Glenn Brooks

We dig this album in a jam session too.

production notes & song titles
Buell Neidlinger, cello and arrangements; Marty Krystall, reeds; Hugh Shick, brass; Richard Greene, violin; Jimbo Ross, viola.

Produced by Buell Neidlinger, recorded by Jim Williams, mastered by Robert Vosgien. 1995 release. (65:23)

Blue Chopsticks | 2300 Skidoo | Portrait of Ucha | The Gig | Love, Gloom, Cash, Love | Cro-Magnon Nights | Step Tempest | The Lady Sings the Blues | Query | Nick at T's | Applejackin

of related interest

Herbie Nichols
The Complete Blue Note Recordings, Blue Note 3xCD 59352
It took a long time, but Blue Note has issued a version of the fine Mosaic box set from a few years back. Three CDs are not a selection, mind you, but everything Nichols recorded for that label.

Love Gloom Cash Love, 1957, Bethlehem CD 42827
Contains "Portrait of Ucha" and the title track, both on the Neidlinger CD.

If you still listen to vinyl, search used record stores for The Third World, Blue Note BN-LA-485-H2. This is a fine two-LP set issued in 1975 that contains all the music on Nichols' original Blue Note releases.

Buell Neidlinger's String Jazz
Locomotive, 1982, Soul Note CD 121-161
Buell does his take on Thelonious Monk and Ellington. Very similar to Blue Chopsticks and equally as recommended.

Steve Lacy
Regeneration, 1983, Soul Note CD 121-054
Change Of Season, Music Of Herbie Nichols, 1984, Soul Note CD 121-104
Soprano sax player Lacy has recorded two fine albums featuring music by Nichols alone (Change Of Season) or Nichols and Monk (Regeneration). Jazz trombone player Roswell Rudd, who played with Nichols, joins Lacy on the second CD.

Duck Baker
Spinning Song, 1996, Avant CD 040
A great and versatile finger-picking guitarist plays Herbie Nichols tunes solo. Beautiful miniatures here are painted in even more delicate tones, but the rhythms are all dead on. May be hard to find, but well worth the effort.

The Herbie Nichols Project
Love Is Proximity, 1996, Soul Note CD 121313-2
Dr. Cyclops' Dream, 1999, Soul Note CD 121333-2
Some downtown types play up-to-date but reverential versions of 20 or so of Nichols' tunes. Main contributors are Frank Kimbrough on piano, Ben Allison on bass, Ted Nash on winds, and Ron Horton on trumpet.

Roswell Rudd Trio
The Unheard Herbie Nichols, Vol. 1, 1996, CIMP CD 133
The Unheard Herbie Nichols, Vol. 2, 1997, CIMP CD 145
On these CDs, Nichol's friend and musical custodian, trombonist Roswell Rudd, begins to fill in the missing tunes in the Nichols playbook. Rudd plays these previously unrecorded tunes with high energy, in a trio with guitar and drums. Superbly well recorded.

Copyright © 1996, 2002 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.