July  2002

The Herbie Nichols Project  - Strange City
Palmetto Records PM 2077
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on DVD]Herbie Nichols is an artist whose time never came. Ignored in his own lifetime despite creating unique, thought-provoking music, Nichols was only able to record four piano-trio albums over the course of his career. However, thanks to the musical wisdom of Frank Kimbrough and Ben Allison, founding fathers of The Herbie Nichols Project, Nichols’ creative visions have finally found full voice.

During a career that was cut short at the age of 44 by leukemia, Nichols’ managed to pen and record some 30-odd original tunes on those four LP’s that he recorded for Blue Note and Bethlehem. The Herbie Nichols Project’s two previous CDs, Love Is Proximity and Dr. Cyclops Dream (both on Soul Note), explored many of them. So imagine the group's joy upon the discovery of almost 30 more new, unrecorded compositions, finally tracked down by project member Ron Horton! Strange City is the first installment of these "new" songs.

Some will be quick to point out that Nichols himself penned none of the arrangements for the songs used on Strange City. So what? The important thing is that this wonderful music is finally seeing the light of day, rather than collecting dust on the overcrowded shelves of the Library Of Congress. As has been pointed out by his friend, student and jam partner Roswell Rudd, Nichols loved to hear his music as performed on horns. Considering that Nichols’ own recordings were all performed in a simple trio format, we can only imagine that the expanded instrumentation of The Herbie Nichols Project’s Strange City would have tickled him to no end.

The HNP consists of pianist Kimbrough, bassist Allison, trumpet/flugelhornist Horton, tenor saxophonist Ted Nash, soprano saxophonist Michael Blake, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and drummer Matt Wilson. Given that, unlike their previous efforts, it’s a rare tune here that contains contributions from all the members, one begins to see all the varying possibilities available to The Herbie Nichols Project in Strange City. Using groupings that range from pianoless sextet to various quartets and quintets and even a piano trio, The Herbie Nichols Project wrings much new insight from these musical gems.

The sound given to Strange City is a mixture of good and, well, not so good. Taken in pieces, the instruments sound exceptionally well recorded. The drums in particular receive almost audiophile-like treatment, and the horns come across as both tonally accurate and lifelike. The only downsides to an otherwise well-done recording are the tight soundstage (which doesn’t stretch much beyond the speakers) and the fact that most of the horns lack a smidgen of bite. In spite of that, the musicians occupy their own acoustic space and there is a sense of depth.

So the sun has finally risen for Herbie Nichols. Unfortunately, dawn came 29 years too late for him to profit from it. We, on the other hand, have the distinct pleasure of listening to and enjoying some of the most unique jazz music ever penned, all arranged in a manner that would have been pleasing to Nichols. The Herbie Nichols Project does justice to the music of a man who should have gotten much more than he ever received. Strange City deserves a place in the collection of every jazz lover.