Pianist heads Home for solo performance

Duke Performances kicks off an obscurely named mini jazz festival this weekend. The name-Jazz @ Home-is meant to focus listener attention on the importance of context to the creation of music.

But for pianist Frank Kimbrough, the title hits-well, a little closer to home. In fact, the Roxboro native is visiting his parents before his solo performance Sunday in the Nelson Music Room, and he said he enjoys playing on his home turf, among other places.

"I enjoy playing anywhere," Kimbrough said. "Of course, when I come down a lot of times I'll maybe see someone come to a concert that I haven't seen for 20 years, an old friend."

Through his work with the Jazz Composers Collective, Shirley Horn and bandleader Maria Schneider-he performed with her at Duke two years ago-Kimbrough has become one of the leading pianists of his generation. His career started, however, in Boone, where he attended Appalachian State University, and in Chapel Hill, where he lived and played in 1978 and 1979 under the mentorship of legendary and recently deceased local patriarch Brother Yusuf Salim.

"I used to play for $5 a night in Chapel Hill," he said. "The scene there is quite small, you know? Like one of the places I used to play was at Brother Yusuf's place. He was a great supporter back then and had me on his TV show. And we played at the Cat's Cradle every Monday night."

Kimbrough's Sunday show is being billed as Air, after his latest record, also his first solo outing. Kimbrough's lyrical, spacious style conjures several other great solo pianists including Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett, but he became sick of playing without bandmates after his first decade in New York City when he found that most gig opportunities were solo flights in bars and restaurants.

"That was how I got my act together," he explained. "And I learned hundreds of tunes that way. Around [1992] we formed the [Jazz Composers] Collective, and by that time I'd grown pretty tired of playing solo. It wasn't that I was bored with myself, but I didn't like the circumstances in which I was playing, which was in bars and restaurants. I really had a deep desire to play with people."

The solo disc wasn't planned. Matt Balitsaris, head of the Palmetto label for which Kimbrough records, had just bought new recording equipment and had maintenance done on the studio piano, so he asked Kimbrough to play a little. Three years later, they dug out the tapes, decided they were good, recorded some additional material and released Air, which features music by fellow North Carolinian Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Paul Motian and Kimbrough.

But don't expect to hear just that material Sunday.

"I've seen the advertisements that say I'll be playing Ellington and Monk," he says. "I mean, I might, but I never said that. It depends on how I'm feeling, it depends on the audience, it depends on what's happening in the moment. I've gone to hear bands play two nights in a now. If a band is playing the same thing two nights in a row, that tells me something about that artist that I don't want to know."


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