Who is the greatest jazz musician you’ve never heard of? The answer just might be Herbie Nichols, the incredibly talented pianist and composer who died in 1963 at the age of 44. Nichols always seemed on the verge of breakthrough, but it never happened – he was nearly unknown when he died. He made three albums for Blue Note (two had the same title as this post) and one for Bethlehem, but they made almost no impact at the time. Nichols made his living in settings not suited to his talents: playing in dixieland bands, backing up greasy R & B tenor players, playing cocktail piano gigs.
The lack of regard from his peers and the jazz public seemed to be due to the fact that his music just didn’t sound like what modern jazz was supposed to sound like. His compositions were unusual, oddly structured, and highly detailed. They had wonderful titles: “House Party Starting,” “Blue Chopsticks,” Cro-Magnon Nights,” “Amoeba’s Dance.” When he improvised on them, his playing was often based on the melody more than on the chords. His style fell somewhere between Teddy Wilson and Thelonious Monk, if you can imagine that. His touch and oblique approach remind me a little of Andrew Hill. But he really didn’t sound like anyone but himself.
Some of his pieces are descriptive – “House Party Starting” starts quietly, then becomes increasingly, drunkenly, more insistent, while Nichols keeps the melody in sight throughout. “The Gig” (maybe my favorite Nichols composition) is an affectionate portrait of a somewhat inept pickup band who doesn’t quite know the tune they’re attempting on the bandstand. The A section is based on a common chord progression, but the last chord is “wrong.” The melody starts, hesitates, starts, stops, and starts again; it ends up being nine bars long instead of the standard eight – the band has added a measure.
“Shuffle Montgomery” is an AABA tune that has one the coolest/funniest bridges ever: it’s the same two-bar blues-cliché lick played four times in a row, regardless of how the harmony changes underneath it. Then Nichols throws in the same lick as a tag at the end of the tune. Too cool.
Although Nichols was not really accepted by his peers during his lifetime, he attracted a small coterie of younger followers/students, including some who went on to greater fame, like Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd. Rudd has probably done more to keep Nichols’ legacy alive than anyone; he has recorded many of Herbie’s tunes, including two volumes of The Unheard Herbie Nichols, previously unrecorded pieces that he learned directly from Nichols. Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg has recorded several albums of Nichols, both with his ICP orchestra and with smaller groups. And The Herbie Nichols Project, a collective band built around pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison, has recorded three albums of Herbie’s tunes, including some that had not been recorded before.
But you should check out the original. As of right now the complete Blue Note recordings are still in print – all three original albums plus many tracks that were not released until years later. And Art Blakey and Max Roach are the drummers! Buy this stuff, borrow it, download it, steal it - just hear it while you can.
And all of you jazz history/discography geeks out there, check out the definitive answer, straight from the horse’s mouth, about Nichols and Danny Barker recording together, from a previous post.