Ben Allison, Steve Cardenas, Ted Nash: Tell The Birds I Said Hello – The Music Of Herbie Nichols

Tenor, guitar and bass trio create a chamber-jazz sound pleasingly at odds with the piano trio setup that features on Nichols' own recordings

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There’s more than the customary back story to this music, the press release for which avoids the usual blithe overstatements and instead informs readers of how some previously unknown Herbie Nichols compositions saw the light of day. The subsequent delectation for the ears amounts for this listener to one of the albums of 2024 (in February) subject to a rush of releases of similar depth and substance (for which I’m not holding my breath).

Of the eight compositions here only two, Enrapture and Bird Song, have been previously recorded. The liberties this trio takes with them, informed as they are by contemporary sensibilities yet respectful of the qualities that continue to make Nichols’ work as distinctive in its way as Thelonious Monk’s and Andrew Hill’s, lend proceedings an air of chamber jazz quite at odds with the piano, bass and drums line-ups that feature on all of Nichols’ output under his own name.

Thus the wistful qualities of the title track are to the fore even in the midst of a quintessentially Nichols-esque undercurrent, and the trio shows both sympathy and empathy in its collective interpretive depth. In so doing it serves to remind us that compositional substance is a quality not as synonymous with jazz as it might once have been.

Van Allen Belt maybe best highlights Nichols’s idiosyncratic way with a melodic line, and it’s to the trio’s credit that they make no heavy-handed attempt at ironing out the consequent quirks.

For all we know Nichols might have meant That Moanin’ Blues to be unusually heavy with titular irony because for all of its blue shades the composer’s identity still shines through in a manner that’s uncommonly true. The trio blows on it without resorting to any overt licks or clichés, a fact which is arguably one of the greatest acknowledgements of the sadly overlooked art of Herbie Nichols.


Discography
She Insists; The Afterbeat; Tell The Birds I Said Hello; Enrapture; Swan Song; Van Allen Belt; Games And Codes; That Moanin’ Blues (39.36)
Nash (ts); Cardenas (g); Allison (b). Maggie’s Farm, Pipersville PA, 8-9 April 2023.
Sonic Camera Records SC2401