Q&A with Frank Kimbrough: Inviting the Magic

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Frank Kimbrough

(Photo: Courtesy Pirouet Records)

Pianist Frank Kimbrough is a veteran of the New York scene, having spent the past 35 years working alongside such luminaries as Carla Bley, Maria Schneider, Shirley Horn and Lee Konitz. He has also made a name for himself as a supportive and inspiring educator. In 2008 he was appointed to the faculty at the Juilliard School, and served as interim chair of the Jazz Studies Program from January–June 2014.

In November, he released Solstice, his debut album for the Pirouet label. DownBeat caught up with Kimbrough to discuss his composition process and the story behind his new album, Solstice, which he considers the capstone of his impressive oeuvre.

You started on piano because your mother was a piano teacher, and her mother before her, so it was natural that you would do the same.

I did actually want to learn the saxophone when I was younger, but I started on piano earlier than I can really remember. I honestly cannot remember a time when I didn’t play piano. In my teens I wanted to learn the saxophone, and my parents would have none of it! What my mother told me—and it seemed like justification at the time, I don’t know if it still holds true now—was that if I played the saxophone, I would be a lousy saxophone player and a lousy piano player.

I also had an art teacher in school, when I was around 13. I liked to paint, and she told me that I had to make a decision again. She didn’t manage to tell me about Henri Texier or Han Bennink, both of them jazz musicians who paint as well. I was being presented with an all-or-nothing choice, and on reflection, maybe I took that offer a little more seriously than I should have.

North Carolina, where you were born, occupies an interesting place in jazz history. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, lots of jazz musicians are from there, it’s just that none of them stayed there! Monk was from there, Coltrane was from there, Max Roach, Nina Simone, Lou Donaldson, there are tons of great jazz musicians who started out in that area, but they all left. I don’t know the reason why those musicians all left; I would guess that it may have a race element in their decisions.

Were you a good student in school? Some people enjoy kicking against the system, and other people do it because it is a necessary evil to get them where they want to go. Which were you?

Oh, I loved being subversive! But I did try to fit into whatever environment I was in. I love a righteous fight, but I am too old for that kinda thing now! Musicians are co-operative people, that is what we do.

What is your writing method? Do you write all the time, or do you write specifically for a project?

I don’t really think of myself as a composer to be honest. Maria Schneider, that’s a composer; Wayne Shorter is a composer. I write things that are sketches, one page long. I like to write simple pieces that are easy to play; I have no interest in writing long complex pieces that have no interest to me at all. You won’t find me writing anything in 15/8, or anything overly complicated. I rarely use the piano to write.

There is a park across the street from my house and I go over there at night, maybe around 11 o’clock, and I sit there and if an idea hits me, I may walk around the park with the idea bouncing around my head for six months, and then I might write 16 bars of music.

So it’s like writing the first line of a novel, the rest of it will follow on from there naturally.

Well, there has to be an idea there; otherwise, there is no point in playing the piece in the first place. You need an idea that other musicians can latch onto and develop, and not something that needs endless discussion or endless rehearsal because I think rehearsal kills music. I don’t rehearse with musicians.

When we did the Solstice album, I worked that using my normal method, if you could call it that. I chose the music in the week leading up to the recording date. I have shelves full of stuff in my home, and I work out what would be cool to play. So the night before we record, I get into bed with three copies of the tunes we are going to do and I check that everything we are going to need is there. My wife came in with three copies of the tune “Solstice,” which she had written about five years ago, and she wondered if we might want to play it. Seven of the nine tunes were played were first takes.

Is there an album you recommend as an introduction to your work?

A lot of people ask me that. I think that Solstice is maybe the best record I have made. It’s good if there is risk involved, risk invites mayhem, and it also invites magic. When I got the rough mixes home from the Solstice session, I played it over and over, as I always do, and usually I start hearing things that bug me and I have to stop. But with this record, I heard more depth in the group playing and the way we played together.

Music is not athletics. I am tired of hearing clever athletic music. And I don’t want to hear it anymore.

How is there time for everything? You stated as a composer, you are an educator, and you perform, and you must want to listen to new music, how do you fit it all in?

You somehow find the time. I don’t listen to music nearly as much as I used to. I used to listen 24-7 until I was 40. I remember standing in front of my collection—my CD’s and albums—and thinking, “There are maybe a thousand albums here, and I don’t want to hear any of them, and that felt quite disturbing. But then I thought, this is a different time, maybe I don’t need to listen like I used to. Maybe I can use that space for hearing what is in my own head. You can’t do that if you are listening to other people. It gives me space to think about what I am after in music.

So that realization made me re-assess things. I tell my students to listen now as voraciously as possible because there will come a time when you either don’t have the time to listen, or you won’t need it anymore. DB