On Frank Kimbrough’s album Solstice and the late Paul Bley.
As a journalist, I have often had to explain to an English-speaking audience the rise of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant prejudices in France. But on election night, I found myself in the temporary offices of the radio show France Culture in midtown Manhattan, explaining to a French audience the triumph of the same prejudices in my own country. Struck by (though far from relishing) this irony, I was reminded of a novel I’d reviewed for the London Review of Books last year, Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian Submission, in which a demoralized France elects an Islamist presidential candidate backed by the Gulf states. In the final pages, the hero, a pathetic white male academic named François, converts to Islam because he fears being deprived of a future in a country where darker-skinned worshippers of Allah have taken over. Our president-elect is a Muslim hater, not a Muslim, but he, too, was catapulted to power with help from influential friends abroad, and his millions of supporters were driven by related fears of finding themselves without a place in an increasingly multicultural society—victims of what the French fascist theorist Renaud Camus has called “the Great Replacement.”
When I returned home at four in the morning, I poured myself a whiskey and reached for the nearest CD, Gil Scott-Heron’s 1974 album, Winter in America: a title that seemed almost cruelly appropriate even if it was still November. I listened to his Watergate monologue, “The H20gate Blues”:
I’m sorry, the government you have elected is inoperative. Click, inoperative. Just how blind will America be? The world is on the edge of its seat. Defeat on the horizon. Very surprising that we could see the plot and claim that we could not … How long will the citizens wait, it’s looking like Europe in ’38, did they move to stop Hitler before it was too late? … Four more years, four more years, four more years of that?
I found comfort in Gil’s words, and I’ve returned to them frequently in the last few weeks. But as fall has turned to winter and the president-elect has formed a cabinet so outlandishly right-wing that not even the Onion could have invented it, the album that has provided me with the deepest consolation is a jazz piano trio with no political aspirations, and indeed no words at all: the pianist Frank Kimbrough’s Solstice, released by Pirouet in November. The absence of rhetoric is particularly refreshing at a time when we’ve been inundated with rhetoric. In a climate as coarse, bullying, and deceitful as ours, sometimes the most subversive response is not to engage directly with authority, but to dance around it, creating what Deleuze and Guattari called “lines of flight.”
Music, the most abstract and least referential of the arts, has this potential in abundance. It can communicate beyond language, and therefore, as Ornette Coleman said, “in all languages.” Some might consider a record like Solstice to be an escape from the real—a charge once raised against abstract art—but I hear it as offering a different entry point into the real, those lower frequencies of expression that political language tends to render inaudible. I hear a work of such bewitching lyricism that I have found myself humming its melodies on the street.
What accounts for this powerful vocal quality, I suspect, is Kimbrough’s long-standing association with singers, starting with his early mentor Shirley Horn, whose plaintive, heart-stopping account of George Gershwin’s “Here Come the Honey Man” is re-created to exquisite effect on Solstice. In recent years, Kimbrough has also collaborated with the classical soprano Dawn Upshaw, and with his life partner, the jazz vocalist Maryanne de Prophetis, who wrote the hushed, evocative title track. The nine songs on Solstice are best experienced as a wordless cycle, a narrative that takes us through states of turbulence and longing, mourning and rapture. Solstice is not so much their subject as their condition of possibility: a moment of intensified contrasts of darkness and light, when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator.
Of course, solstice can also refer to a climax or peak, and this album represents both for Kimbrough, who recently turned sixty. Working with two exceptionally sensitive musicians—the bassist Jay Anderson and the drummer Jeff Hirshfield—he has made the album of his career, a work characterized by what Miles Davis liked to call “quiet fire.” Long admired by his peers for the beauty of his touch and the grace of his phrasing, Kimbrough has never attracted a large audience, or attempted to ingratiate himself with one. On the contrary, he has spent much of his career celebrating the work of other pianists—notably Herbie Nichols, a brilliant Harlemite of Trinidadian origin who wrote hundreds of idiosyncratic tunes (among them “Lady Sings the Blues”) but could hardly get them heard before he died of leukemia in 1963, at forty-four. Kimbrough has also been a champion of his friend the late Andrew Hill, whose Blue Note recordings in the sixties wedded hard bop to a gloriously ruminative modernism; on Solstice, Kimbrough covers “From California with Love,” Hill’s hauntingly elliptical ballad from his 1978 album of the same name.
But Kimbrough’s greatest influence, by a considerable margin, is the late Canadian pianist Paul Bley. A bebop prodigy who cut his 1953 debut with Charles Mingus and Art Blakey when he was barely out of his teens, Bley was leading a band at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles a few years later when a young, bearded alto saxophonist from Texas showed him that you didn’t have to improvise on the basis of chord changes—the foundation of bop. As Bley put it in his memoir, Stopping Time, “we were all waiting for something, we knew not what. Unknown to us, we were waiting for Ornette Coleman to join our band at the Hillcrest Club.” During his 1958 stint with Coleman, he realized that “A-A-B-A was over, to be replaced by A to Z.” Bley would adapt Coleman’s “harmolodic” ideas to the piano, much as Bud Powell had done for Charlie Parker’s bebop improvisation.
Solstice was recorded only a few months after Bley’s death at eighty-three in early January of this year, and it contains ghostly echoes of Bley’s work, not only in the repertoire but in Kimbrough’s clarity of articulation and his singing tone. Bley never achieved the fame of Bill Evans, who, in Bley’s words, “already owned 99 percent of the jazz piano business” when he settled in New York in the early 1960s, but his range and influence may turn out to be greater. In fact, Bley changed the history of jazz piano twice in the space of a decade.
The first time was in 1963, in a two-minute solo on Sonny Meets Hawk, an album that paired two of the finest tenor players in the history of jazz, Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins. As Kimbrough wrote shortly after his death, Bley blithely ignores the chord changes of “All the Things You Are” in his solo, almost miraculously playing “where the harmony was GOING.” (The guitarist Pat Metheny, another Bley admirer, called this solo a “shot heard ’round the world.”) A few months after that session, Bley completed the tracks on his breakthrough trio with the bassist Steve Swallow and the drummer Pete “La Roca” Sims,” Footloose. The album introduced a more lyrical, contemplative alternative—freely interactive yet melodic—to the furiously percussive style of free jazz pioneered by the pianist Cecil Taylor, who had combined the orchestral approach of Duke Ellington with the bent notes of Thelonious Monk and the dissonances of European modernism. Keith Jarrett’s trio with the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the bassist Gary Peacock—a Bley collaborator since the early 1960s—is inconceivable without Footloose, as Jarrett himself has acknowledged.
The second time that Bley altered the course of jazz piano history was on September 11, 1972, when he recorded the solo piano album Open, to Love, in an Oslo studio, for ECM Records. Open, to Love is an obvious precursor to albums like The Köln Concert, which appeared three years later on the same label, but it inhabits an entirely different expressive universe: austere, almost secretive, impervious to the kind of extroverted romanticism that made Jarrett’s album the best-selling solo-piano record in history. The power of Open, to Love lies in in the notes that Bley withholds, as much as in those he plays; his silences suggests awkward hesitations, phrases broken off prematurely, and they lend the album an intimate, sometimes disquieting frisson.
Bley was the first of two great Canadian-Jewish musicians to die this year. The other was, of course, his fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen, who was two years his junior. Like Cohen, Bley luxuriated in melancholy; he often seemed to want (to quote Cohen) to “make it darker.” He also shared Cohen’s interest in women—not just as muses but as creative partners. Much of the music that Bley recorded (when it wasn’t fully improvised on the spot) was composed by Carla Bley, his first wife, whom he met when she was working as a cigarette girl at Birdland in the midfifties; and by the singer Annette Peacock, his bandmate Gary Peacock’s former wife, who became his partner from the midsixties through the early seventies. Open, to Love featured tunes by both of them, and so does Kimbrough’s Solstice, which opens with Carla’s lamentation “Seven,” and includes two of Peacock’s best-known pieces, the slow, somber “Albert’s Love Theme” and the Andalusian-accented “El Cordobes.” His only contribution as a composer, “Question’s the Answer,” suggests a cousin of the midtempo, noirish tunes that Carla wrote for her former husband on Footloose and other albums.
I don’t mean to suggest that Bley’s female muses, who went on to distinguished careers of their own, share a single sensibility. Carla Bley, for all her ironical poses, is a closet romantic, a balladeer at heart; Peacock has explored eerier, near-vanishing states of being, which attracted the notice of David Bowie when he heard her 1972 debut record, I’m the One. Yet their compositions share something that Paul called an “inevitable” sound, thanks to a structural starkness verging on immateriality: their scores are fragile organisms, created out of small melodic fragments and asymmetrical silences. They are ideal, in other words, for adventurous improvisers like Bley and Kimbrough. As the critic Arrigo Cappelletti has written in a perceptive study of Paul Bley’s work, this is music that “goes to the limit of silence. The pauses and the irregular intervals between phrases do not function only as musical punctuation,” but express “a desire for extreme authenticity.”
In his search for expressive authenticity, Paul Bley was joined not only by his former partners, but by the drummer Paul Motian, who made his name with Bill Evans and the bassist Scott La Faro at the Village Vanguard; and by the bassist Charlie Haden, another Ornette Coleman disciple, who recorded with Motian and Bley in one of the great trios of the 1980s. Motian, who played in one of Kimbrough’s bands, died in 2011, Haden in 2014. I hear strong echoes of the Bley-Motian-Haden trio on Solstice, particularly in Kimbrough’s cover of Motian’s “The Sunflower,” where Hirshfield’s solo evokes the shimmering timbres of the cymbals Motian cherished.
Yet for all of Kimbrough’s homages to Bley and other heroes, Solstice is not a commemorative or nostalgic work so much as a stately, delicate declaration of renewal. If it begins with the elegiac tones of “Seven,” it concludes with an achingly hopeful ballad, a slow, gorgeous aria composed by the jazz orchestrator Maria Schneider (whose pianist Kimbrough has been since the early nineties). The title is “Walking by Flashlight”: solstice brings rebirth, Kimbrough suggests, yet it also forces us to wander through a new and uncertain landscape that we cannot yet see. There is something very honest—and therefore all the more moving—about this tentativeness. Music alone is not enough, but so long as we have it, it can provide what Stendhal called a promise of happiness, illuminating the darkness.
Adam Shatz is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books and a fellow in residence at the New York Institute for the Humanities.