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
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
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
Love Gloom Cash Love, 1957, Bethlehem CD 42827
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.
Regeneration, 1983, Soul Note CD 121-054
Change Of Season, Music Of Herbie Nichols, 1984, Soul Note
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.
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.