Interview: Fay Victor on Herbie Nichols

(photo: Fay Victor by Eliseo Cardona)

Some of the most memorable – poetically exuberant and just plain house-rocking – concerts over the past five years of the Sound It Out series have been those by singer Fay Victor’s Herbie Nichols Sung band. This Friday, June 23, at Greenwich House Music School, Fay will return to lead her hard-grooving quintet in a two-set event to help celebrate the fifth anniversary of Sound It Out, as well as raise money for Greenwich House. Fay and company – Michaël Attias (alto and baritone saxophones), Anthony Coleman (piano), Ratzo Harris (double-bass) and Devin Gray (drums) – will be performing her vocal re-creations of music by the great, unsung bop-era pianist-composer Herbie Nichols, who penned the music for Billie Holiday’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” along with making evergreen trio recordings under his own name for Blue Note and Bethlehem. Nichols, a New York City native born in 1919 and who died at age 44 in 1963, would no doubt love what Fay does with his music, as he once said: “The voice is the most beautiful instrument of all.”

About her project to convey the spirit of this music vocally, Fay told me: “I’ve been working with Herbie Nichols’ music for over a decade and a half – I’m madly in love with it. His is joyous, irresistible music, even if it has been sadly underplayed. There are scholarly approaches to his pieces, but our way is to open up the forms and get that joyousness across. Except for Billie’s words to ‘Lady Sings the Blues,’ I wrote the lyrics to all the tunes, with the words coming out of the music itself and my response to it. The way the band plays is sensitive and open but with real muscularity and intensity. I hope people aren’t intimidated if they don’t know the music or even the name of Herbie Nichols – I want them to come dig the music and leave having been taken by the beauty of the melodies and their singability. I want people to fall in love with Herbie Nichols like I have.”

Before my interview with Fay continues below, it’s perhaps best to interpolate a description of Nichols’ music – the best I know – that appears in the liner notes to the indispensable boxed set The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Herbie Nichols. Describing the art of Nichols, estimable jazzers Frank Kimbrough and Ben Allison write: “As a pianist, [Herbie] was kaleidoscopic, encompassing the entire history of jazz piano and much of European classical music as well, which blended with his own innovative harmonic and rhythmic ideas – allowing him to weave a style that is essentially a school unto itself. Although his playing is often compared to that of his contemporaries Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell – and one can also detect the influence of Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and Jelly Roll Morton, among others – [Herbie] is like no other. He possessed a touch capable of evoking the entire emotional spectrum, from quiet introspection to joyous exuberance, and from delicate sensitivity to primitive brutality…

“As a composer… [Herbie penned] tunes that are evocative, usually written with a particular place, person, event or feeling in mind. His oblique approach to melody and harmony creates musical ideas that sparkle the more they are scrutinized. Herbie’s love of mixing the strange with the familiar gives his music the feeling of simultaneously looking backward and forward in time. Imagine a Dixieland beat, a diatonic, hummable melody, and the harmonies of Bartók all woven together and you’ll get the idea. Nobody’s music grooves like Herbie’s… [It] reveals a lope and sense of humor that could only come from playing the Harlem and Greenwich Village dives where he so often worked. You can feel the sweat of the crowd, see the dancers, taste the 15-cent beers, smell the cigarette smoke swirling around the music.”

How could you not dig that? Now onto more of my conversation with Fay…

Bradley Bambarger: Was the late-’80s LP Carmen Sings Monk, by Carmen McRae, a key inspiration for you? Did it plant a seed for your Herbie Nichols Sung project?

Fay Victor: Oh, yes, that was a big inspiration, as I first heard it around the time I got started singing. I know and love that album deeply – it’s amazing, so adventurous. It was the first record I knew where a singer devoted an entire album to exploring a composer of primarily instrumental music. As much as I had loved Monk before that – and knew the famous vocal versions of “Round Midnight” that had already been done – the Carmen McRae album made Monk’s music more accessible to me as a singer. It opened up possibilities in my thinking. But a figure who inspired me directly when it came to the music of Herbie Nichols was the late Mischa Mengelberg [the Dutch pianist, composer and arranger, who recorded exciting, individualist interpretations of Nichols’ music with his ICP Orchestra]. I’m dedicating this concert to Mischa’s memory, his example. He had this deep knowledge of the jazz tradition, as well as a real love of improvisation – and a playful sense of humor.

My first work with Herbie’s music was when I wrote lyrics for his tune “House Party Starting,” calling it “Tonight.” I recorded that song for my second album, Darker Than Blue, which came out in 2001. Pianist Vijay Iyer and bassist John Hébert, who many jazz fans know well, were on that record. All these years later, and I’ve recently recorded a live trio album of Herbie Nichols music in Europe, with pianist Achim Kaufmann and reed player Tobias Delius at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam and the Loft in Cologne.

BB: What does the music of Herbie Nichols say to you?

FV: More than anything, there’s that joy in Herbie’s compositions. The sheer exuberance in his music is one element that makes it ideal for singing. You know, Herbie’s mother was from Trinidad and so was my mother. I’ve spent a lot of time down there, and I can discern a characteristic Trinidadian trait in his music, a mix of intellectual confidence on one hand and not taking yourself too seriously on the other. There’s a good-time element to Herbie’s songs coupled with a sense of cultural and creative achievement. We want to bring something of that alive in the way we use the tunes as vehicles for improvisation, taking advantage of the elasticity of the music. One thing I learned from working with Mischa and the ICP is that it’s not just the notes and the harmonic contours of a song that matter – it’s also the spirit of what it means to us. So, we open the songs up: The composition as a composition is stated, but where in the process it’s stated is open to the moment.

BB: Describe the particular sonic character of your Herbie Nichols Sung band.

FV: First of all, these guys bring a real intensity to this music, whether it’s the sort of smoldering intensity that Michaël Attias has or the burning intensity of Anthony Coleman. Ratzo Harris, too – the whole band has a strong sense of ‘inside-outside’ playing, as we’re going in and out of the structure of the material. These guys are so good at jumping between the two worlds seamlessly. For jazz repertory bands, it’s hard to find players who both know the tradition and can take it further, but these are the right musicians for it. They can take the music to a free space and then jump back to form and time effortlessly. All of these guys love Herbie’s music, and you can hear that. Michaël was into Herbie way before this band. Anthony, of course, is someone who knows jazz from its very beginnings all the way forward. He had previously delved more deeply into Monk and Jelly Roll Morton, but that experience makes him an ideal player for Herbie’s music. The usual drummer for this project, Rudy Royston, couldn’t make the gig, so we have Devin Gray – this will be his first show with the band. We rehearsed the other day, and Devin got it right off – while bringing his own energy to the music.

BB: Which tunes will be on the set list?

FV: We’ll be doing “House Party Starting,” “The Gig,” “2300 Skidoo,” “Step Tempest” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” among others. And we’ll be presenting three tunes with my lyrics for the first time live: “Double Exposure,” “Another Friend” and “Twelve Bars.” We’re really looking forward to sharing this music with the Sound It Out audience at Greenwich House. As I said before, we want people to fall in love with the music of Herbie Nichols like we have.

(photo: Fay Victor’s Herbie Nichols Sung, by Bradley Bambarger)

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