Frank Kimbrough, Pianist and Composer Who Balanced Mystery with Clarity, Has Died at 64

Dec 31, 2020

Frank Kimbrough, a pianist of unerring taste and touch, a composer drawn to flowing ethereality, and an improviser steeped in the art of epiphany, died on Wednesday at his home in Long Island City, N.Y. 

He was 64. Maryanne de Prophetis, his wife of 31 years, said the likely cause was a heart attack.

Kimbrough was a consummate sideman, and a seasoned bandleader who worked most often in an elastic trio with bass and drums. For more than 25 years, he held down a crucial chair in the Maria Schneider Orchestra — appearing on all but one of Schneider’s nine albums, including Data Lords, the acclaimed two-disc opus released in 2020.

Frank Kimbrough, at far left, with the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival.
Credit Jonathan Chimene / WBGO

“I feel like so much of what the band has become — the organic freedom that the band has developed over the years — is largely standing on the foundation of Frank,” said Schneider, speaking by phone. “Because he thrived on risk, always. He showed me how much I could trust in my musicians. That the music could go anywhere, and he’d be there — because he had incredible ears, incredible taste, because he was so selfless and had this big musical heart. He was always taking it someplace different, and someplace astoundingly beautiful, every night.”

Kimbrough released more than a dozen albums as a leader, including Lullabluebye, a 2004 outing with bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson; and Play, issued in 2006, with bassist Masa Kamaguchi and the late drummer Paul Motian. “The Spins,” one of eight Kimbrough originals from Play, captures his whimsical side.

Kimbrough also made valuable contributions with the Jazz Composers Collective, which Allison formed in the early 1990s. It pointedly served as a laboratory and launching pad for original music by its members, whose ranks also included trumpeter Ron Horton and saxophonists Ted Nash and Michael Blake.

But ironically enough, one of the flagship efforts under the Jazz Composers Collective banner turned out to be the Herbie Nichols Project. As the name implies, it focused on the music of Herbie Nichols, a semi-obscure midcentury pianist and composer — including pieces he never recorded, unearthed in manuscript form at the Library of Congress. Kimbrough co-led the band and served as the all-important Nichols proxy, a role he inhabited with utmost commitment.

But then, Nichols already loomed as one of his piano touchstones and uncompromising role models. Kimbrough favored shadowy intrigue and enveloping rapture, but always played with precise articulation and a firm sense of traction underfoot. He could give an airy impression, or an earthy one; the abiding constant was a lyrical pulse, holding steady in the eye of any storm.

Frank Marshall Kimbrough, Jr. was born in Roxboro, N.C. on Nov. 2, 1956. His father, Frank, Sr., was a florist. His mother, the former Katie Lee Currin, taught piano — the main reason for his early start on the instrument, at age 3. He studied classically with private teachers up through high school, but by his own recollection he was always improvising, even before he had any frame of reference for it. 

“Growing up in rural North Carolina, where there was no record store or bookstore — I had to drive 30 miles to see a movie or to buy a book or a record or anything like that,” he told me in 2004, for a profile in JazzTimes. “I didn’t become exposed to jazz until I was probably around 14 or 15, and it was on PBS: the Bill Evans Trio. I remember it like it was yesterday. Because there it was, the discipline of the classical stuff that I’d been working on, and the freedom of improvising.”

Evans embodied one early fount of insight; so too did Thelonious Monk, who cut quite a different profile as a pianist and composer. “Those were the two main people I studied, and I guess Monk sort of led me in the direction of Andrew Hill, and Bill led me in the direction of Paul Bley,” Kimbrough mused recently. His pantheon also came to include Keith Jarrett, Shirley Horn, Annette Peacock, Abdullah Ibrahim and a handful of others.

Kimbrough dropped out of college in pursuit of a musical career, first in Chapel Hill, N.C., then in Washington, D.C. — and finally in New York, where the only gig he could get was at the Village Corner, a noisy piano bar on Bleecker Street. He worked there for five years, vowing to learn and play a new song every night.

Looking back, he often cited that solitary experience as formative, but it wasn’t until 2008 that Kimbrough released a solo piano album, calling it Air. Reviewing it for the New York Times, I observed that Kimbrough “approaches each theme with generosity and composure; he’s more interested in lurking around a melody than in figure-skating over a harmony. Despite his percussive touch, he creates a sense of flow by letting chords chime, overlap and decay.”

Frank Kimbrough at The Kitano in 2015.
Credit Fran Kaufman / WBGO

Kimbrough was also a distinguished and devoted music educator, notably at Juilliard, where he joined the Jazz Studies faculty in 2008. (He served as its interim chair in 2014.) Among the many students he mentored were drummer Jerome Jennings, who is now resident director of the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, and pianist Micah Thomas, who remembered him on Wednesday night as “the kind of guy who cared the most about everybody; he kind of held the community together.”

De Prophetis, a singer and composer who was Kimbrough’s partner in music as in life, characterized his teaching as an unseen but vital part of his artistic self. “I think he felt like he could give even more of himself musically and humanly, as a teacher, than he could with his playing,” she observed. “That’s a pretty radical thing to say. But he got so much gratification from imparting in that way — and yet he was so humbled by his students.”

In addition to de Prophetis, Kimbrough is survived by his mother, Katie Lee, and by four younger brothers: Conrad, Mark, Edwin and David.

One of Kimbrough’s most recent and representative albums is Solstice, whose poetic title track was composed by de Prophetis. Released in 2016, with Jay Anderson on bass and Jeff Hirshfield on drums, the album also draws from the songbooks of Motian, Hill, Peacock and Carla Bley. And it includes a version of Schneider’s “Walking By Flashlight,” which Kimbrough played on both her classical album Winter Morning Walks and her jazz album The Thompson Fields. (Both releases garnered Grammy awards.)

In 2017, Kimbrough also made the inaugural album for a vinyl-only subscription label, Newvelle Records. That album, Meantime, features several younger players: saxophonist Andrew Zimmerman, trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, bassist Chris Van Voorst Van Beest and drummer R.J. Miller. Here is footage of the group recording Kurt Weil’s “Alabama Song.”

Kimbrough’s final studio release, a major undertaking, was Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk — a reverential yet unburdened treatment of all the pieces in Monk’s known body of work, spread over 6 CDs. (Released in 2018, it’s now available on streaming services.) For this tribute, which Kimbrough half-jokingly pronounced a “fool’s errand,” he assembled a first-rate quartet with Scott Robinson on various wind instruments, Rufus Reid on bass and Billy Drummond on drums.

I wrote the liner notes for Monk’s Dreams, speaking with Kimbrough at length about its process. Among the toughest challenges for him was the matter of emulation: how to capture the trademark eccentricities that Monk built into his own tunes, while avoiding the pitfalls of caricature. “It’s a sound,” Kimbrough said, “and I intentionally played with a lot less sustain than I would normally. So I was trying to adapt my playing to the music.”

That impulse might sound like a manifestation of Kimbrough’s respect for Monk as a pianist, and surely on some level it was. But it was also the natural byproduct of a philosophy Kimbrough upheld as a melodic improviser, whether the source material was a dog-eared standard or a world premiere.

“This is something that I tell all my students: the composition is a gift from the composer, for how you’re going to improvise on this tune,” he explained. “It gives you information. It gives you motive. It gives you intervals. It gives you rhythms. It gives you all sorts of things to deal with. And if you just throw all that out the window with the first chorus of your solo — to just play a bunch of patterns you’ve figured out in a book, or something that’s going to get applause — then I think you’re doing a disservice to the tune and to its composer.”

Kimbrough conducted his entire career, as a leader and an accompanist, according to this conviction. He refused to cater to a public or a paycheck, but where the music was concerned, he was always ready to serve.