Chit-Chatting With Herbie Digital Liner Notes

Cover art by <a href="https://garywlehman.com" target="_blank">Gary Lehman</a>

Cover art by Gary Lehman

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Chit-Chatting With Herbie is our track-by-track re-imagining of the 1956 Blue Note album Herbie Nichols Trio, a record that’s been out of print for decades, by a pianist who is still unfamiliar to most jazz musicians, let alone casual fans. So why would I, a drummer with a piano-less quartet, go to all the trouble of transcribing and arranging these ten songs, not to mention the work and expense of recording, producing and promoting an album of said arrangements? Simply put, I love Herbie’s music and I want to do my part to spread it to more ears.

This project began as a one-off performance for the Jazz Record Art Collective, a series where Chicago musicians perform classic jazz albums in their entirety. When given the opportunity to perform at the series, I couldn’t settle on an any albums with the same instrumentation as Many Blessings: trumpet/tenor sax/bass/drums. As it turns out, most of my favorite jazz musicians are pianists, so I thought it might be a nice challenge to re-arrange a favorite piano trio album for my group. I narrowed my list down to three self-titled albums by three of my favorite pianist/composers: Thelonious Monk Trio, Randy Weston Trio, and Herbie Nichols Trio (what was it with the lack of imagination in album titles with these guys?) While I love Monk and Weston, there was something about Herbie’s music that called out to me personally, almost as if it was saying, “Hey man, I’ve been waiting for you to mess with these tunes. Have at it.” My own compositional ideal pretty much matches exactly Herbie’s unique stew of strong, memorable melodies and swinging rhythms mixed with a relentless experimentation and oddball sense of humor.

Transcribing and arranging the music was one of the biggest projects I’ve taken on as a professional musician, and I loved every minute of it. When we performed the album at JRAC, we had a blast, and I felt like we really nailed the balance between our own musical identity and Herbie’s. I knew I didn’t want that to be the last time we played the music. This past year, I received a grant from the Luminarts Cultural Foundation to partially fund the recording of the project. I then realized that Herbie’s 100th Birthday was right around the corner: January 3, 2019. The release date (and a hard deadline) were set.

Early on in the project, I grabbed a copy of Herbie Nichols Trio on vinyl, and was delighted to see that the back cover was filled with Herbie’s self-penned liner notes. They are smart, funny, and insightful, and provided endless inspiration for my arrangements. Check them out below. Keep scrolling and you'll find side-by-side comparisons of Herbie's original performances and liner notes for each tune alongside the Many Blessings versions and my notes. Enjoy! And if you really like it, consider purchasing the physical CD or digital download on Bandcamp.

1. The Gig

Original notes by Herbie Nichols: "The Gig is all about a happy, modern jam session. The 67-bar chorus speaks of the ‘vonce’ and avant-garde happenings. In the first 9 bars I was able to complete a fair picture of the charged and impatient proceedings. The trill leading to the excitement of the release is probably the most fitting piece of melody that I ever dreamed up."

For our arrangement of “The Gig”, I wanted to dig in to the “charged and impatient” nature of the 9-bar A sections, playing with an elastic rhythmic feel that’s not quite half-time, not quite 4/4 swing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t borrow some ideas from Dave Douglas’ recording of this tune with the Tiny Bell Trio. All of Herbie’s tunes are bookended by a short passage that’s used as an intro and outro — I decided to play with this material differently in each tune. On “The Gig”, we leave out the written intro and start with a drum groove that hints at the melody; we do play Herbie’s material for the outro, but create a looped groove out of it (a very familiar tactic if you’ve listened to much Many Blessings before).

2. House Party Starting