The Herbie Nichols Centennial Project

Don Sickler: Our Herbie Nichols Centennial Project is a solo piano recording project featuring 23 gifted pianists playing 24 previously unrecorded compositions by Herbie Nichols.

At our Herbie Nichols Piano Summit event in December of 2018, I was elated to find that every generation of pianists, from their 80s to their 20s, was represented in the 11 gifted artists that were able to attend the event.

Determined to recorded the 24 previously unrecorded Herbie Nichols compositions, I started reaching out to more pianists. The addition of Joey Alexander added an earlier generation to the project.

Pianist Frank Kimbrough's involvement in this project and in our Piano Summit event was inspiring. We were all deeply saddened by his death in 2020. Both of our projects are dedicated to his memory.

-- About our first release: "The First 6"

Why start with these 6 compositions? I was not the first one find out that Herbie Nichols left manuscripts of his unrecorded compositions. Frank Kimbrough, saxophonist Ted Nash and bassist Ben Allison were part of a quintet Soul Note recording in 1996, featuring Herbie Nichols compositions. Then, early in 2023, I received an email from Ted Nash, and then an email followed by a phone call from guitarist Steve Cardenas, saying that his trio (Allison/Cardenas/Nash) wanted to do a recording of six of the songs in our Herbie Nichols Centennial Project. They already had copies of the manuscripts.

I loved the prospect of having two different recordings of these six songs, by two entirely different instrumentations. We agreed that, as publisher, I would release my "first recording" first. Since their plan was to release their recording on February 2, 2024, I thought January 3, 2024 (on Herbie's 105th birthday, was a perfect date for the release of our first 6 solo piano recordings.

Unfortunately Herbie Nichols never got a chance to record any of these compositions, so our pianists had no previous performances to guide their interpretations on this unique adventure. Only Herbie's carefully notated lead sheet manuscripts (melodies with chord symbols) survive. There are no indications of style or tempo on any of the manuscripts. With the release of the Allison/Cardenas/Nash recordings, we'll have a great opportunity to check out the recordings of two totally different instrumentations, each recording the same 6 previously unrecorded compositions, totally independently!

Herbie first introduced Alfred Lion (Blue Note Records) to his original compositions by playing them at the piano. But Alfred wanted Herbie's albums to be trio (piano, bass and drums). That puts the music is a totally different perspective. Especially, having a drummer on the session changes the feel of everything. For Blue Note, Herbie's first two sessions are with drummer Art Blakey, and his remaining three sessions were with Max Roach.

Most pianists will tell you that solo piano recordings are very challenging. The pianist alone has to keep the time flowing and make all the decisions. A trio of saxophone, guitar and bass is a totally different sound. I'm anxious to hear what Allison/Cardenas/Nash came up with!