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Radioville: Simon Nabatov, “Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols” (Leo) and Jessica Williams, “Songs of Earth” (Origin)

July 12, 2012

My radio review of one of the best solo albums in a period of great solo albums, plus another very good one, is here.

Pianist Herbie Nichols, whose offbeat style is sometimes compared to that of his contemporary, Thelonious Monk, died in obscurity in 1963. But his remarkable body of work has inspired countless artists ranging from the New York-based Herbie Nichols Project to Dutch greats Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink. With his terrific new solo piano album, Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols, Simon Nabatov keeps that ball rolling.

A product of the Moscow Conservatory who now lives mainly in Cologne, Germany following a stint in New York, Nabatov treats Nichols’ springy, bustling, airborn tunes not as brilliant miniatures, as some artists do. He transforms them into epics that can burst into full-blown drama – he loves those dark keys – or drift into twinkling reveries. Sometimes, he attains a driving momentum that seems like it will never let up. On “Blue Chopsticks,” the gregrarious spirit of Cecil Taylor is present. On “The Spinning Wheel,” you get glimpses of Duke Ellington. The performances don’t evolve in neat, orderly fashion, but impulsively, full of sudden turns and gear shifts.

Most of the songs will be familiar to Nichols followers, including his best-known piece, “Lady Sings the Blues,” played in the key of delicacy. The album, which was recorded live in Germany in 2007, also includes “Twelve Bars,” which Nichols never recorded. Nabatov shows off his graceful stride style on the song, which ends abruptly, prematurely, just like Nichols’ life, but without the sadness.

Another pianist who has been strongly influenced by Nichols, Jessica Williams, has a new live solo piano album out, Songs of Earth. It has a lot less Herbie than earlier efforts of hers, including the mid-’80s gem, Nothin’ But the Truth. Williams is in a reflective, classically minded mode here, turning even a John Coltrane tune, “To Be,” into a kind of Chopin-esque rhapsody. But on the buttoned-down “The Enchanted Loom,” the Nichols influence is felt. With a review of Simon Nabatov’s Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols and Jessica Williams’ Songs of Earth, I’m Lloyd Sachs.

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