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Frank Kimbrough: An Overlooked Composer

A pair of recent releases invite us to appreciate the late pianist’s formidable pen

While working on a track for Kimbrough, Scott Robinson gestures toward a photo of his longtime friend and colleague. Photo by Anna Yatskevich (KIMBROUGH PHOTO: Jordan Kleinman)
While working on a track for Kimbrough, Scott Robinson gestures toward a photo of his longtime friend and colleague. Photo by Anna Yatskevich (KIMBROUGH PHOTO: Jordan Kleinman)

The jazz press noted the death of pianist Frank Kimbrough, who succumbed to an apparent heart attack at 64 on December 30, 2020, but gave it little fanfare. That’s to be expected. Kimbrough, one of dozens of jazz casualties since the COVID-19 pandemic began, would always be overshadowed in his passing by that of Chick Corea or Lee Konitz or Wallace Roney. But we may not appreciate who—and what—we lost.

Audiences knew Kimbrough best as the pianist for the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Some savvy observers also recognized him from sideman gigs with Ben Allison or Ted Nash, or were aware of his work in the Herbie Nichols Project, or his 2018 release Monk’s Dreams, in which he interpreted all of Thelonious Monk’s compositions. In short, for most jazz fans, Kimbrough was largely associated with other people’s music. It was the hardcore devotees, and the musicians themselves, who appreciated his accomplishments as a composer.

Kimbrough had an astonishing way with a hook. His tunes—usually developed not at an instrument, but on his long walks around New York (and elsewhere)—rested on the simplest of ideas. A three-note phrase, a pretty chord change, a waltz rhythm. These elements would morph in his head into profound, often complex statements; Kimbrough also had a love of the ethereal that sometimes made those statements difficult to follow. Always, though, there was something accessible and memorable that the ear could latch onto, however precariously.

His premature death, despite being deeply sad, has resulted in a glimmer of hope. Two glimmers, in fact. A pair of recent releases invite us to appreciate the pianist’s formidable pen.

Kimbrough, a weighty volume on France’s Newvelle Records, is the more ambitious and exhaustive of the two. Sixty-seven musicians gather, in various combinations and configurations (that never repeat), to perform 61 of his pieces. Kimbrough’s pianistic voice is of course absent. Still, there is something special about hearing Glenn Zaleski interpreting Kimbrough’s joyful “Lullabluebye” (with bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Allan Mednard), or Dan Tepfer’s quiet conversation with altoist Alexa Tarantino on “Moonflower.” Sometimes there’s no piano at all: “Noumena” is content to let tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin and trumpeter Ron Horton bask in a canyon of echo, with Ben Monder’s guitar distortions and John Hébert’s bass improvisations as their only (skeletal) support. Meanwhile, an unaccompanied Fred Hersch lends the mystery and pathos that only he can to “Reluctance.” A more meaningful epitaph for Kimbrough is difficult to imagine.

Except, of course, for one that the pianist articulates himself. Sunnyside Records marked Kimbrough’s passing with Ancestors, a 2017 recording he made with cornetist Kirk Knuffke—who also appears on Kimbrough—and bassist Masa Kamaguchi. Smaller in scale (as one might imagine), it is nonetheless the more difficult album: The lack of a drummer lets Kimbrough indulge his wispiest impulses, making pieces like “Air” as elusive to the grasp as its titular subject. On the other hand, he can also craft solid performances like “November” or the elegiac “Jimmy G” without sacrificing any of their delicacy. The repertoire inevitably overlaps a great deal with Kimbrough, but Ancestors features four Kimbrough tunes that aren’t on the larger collection. The stunning “Waiting in Santander” is a bit of a drone, but one that packs a wallop. Even more austere are “Eyes,” a piece for Knuffke with knock-on-wood accompaniment, and “Union Square,” a spacious dialogue for cornet and bass. (Best, perhaps, to let the weird abstraction “Solid” speak for itself.) Frank Kimbrough may be gone, but it’s not too late to appreciate the beauty he left behind. 

Scott Robinson Remembers Frank Kimbrough

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.