At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
Frank Kimbrough has been a brilliant and often-overlooked pianist on the scene for more than 30 years. His brilliance is right there in the music, no great mystery. His overlooked-ness is a bit more puzzling, but also less of an issue now than it was earlier in his career.
You may know Kimbrough as the longstanding pianist in the Maria Schneider Orchestra, one of the most widely acclaimed ensembles of our age. (Schneider, a composer and arranger of peerless skill, will be recognized as a 2019 NEA Jazz Master — an honor typically bestowed on artists a decade or two further along.) If you were paying close attention in the 1990s, you would also have known Kimbrough as a founder of the Jazz Composers Collective and one of its flagship bands, the Herbie Nichols Project.
For his 2004 album Lullabluebye, Kimbrough enlisted two fellow members of the JCC, bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson. It's a program of evocative originals, and to my ear a creative breakthrough for Kimbrough as an artist and bandleader. He has released several excellent albums since then, including a gem of a solo piano recital titled Air. But I picked Lullabluebye because of its pivotal quality — the way in which it encapsulates a state of elegant imperfection that Kimbrough sees as critical.
"It’s like the grain of sand that makes the pearl," he told me in 2004, for a profile in JazzTimes. "Some people aren’t looking for pearls; they’re just looking to get it over with. I like to look for pearls. And it takes that grain of sand sometimes."
In the piece, I extended and applied that thought to the album at hand:
Lullabluebye includes more than a few instances of this principle in action. “Whirl” is a free-bop ditty with a fast-flurrying line; during the solo section, the trio performs an interpretive dance, phasing in and out of various tempos. “Ode” finds Kimbrough gently abstracting a handsome theme. And “Ghost Dance” shimmers with quietude, its plaintive dissonance and patient cadence combining for an appropriately haunting effect. There are more grounded moments, too-like a lackadaisically bluesy title track, and a lilting bossa nova rendition of John Barry’s theme from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Whatever the material, the album’s common element is an aura of deep mystique-a trait Kimbrough shares with the likes of Andrew Hill, Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley. Like those personal heroes, he’s a nonidiomatic player, fiercely resistant to quotes or handy turns of phrase.
Here, in a fine illustration of that principle, is "Whirl."