Old Wine, New Bottles: Misha Mengelberg plays Herbie Nichols


Selection: House Party Starting (Nichols)


Misha Mengelberg  (p) Steve Lacy (ss) George Lewis (trb)  Arjen Gorter (mis-spelt Harjen on cover) (b) Han Bennink (d)   recorded July 3 & 3, 1984 at Barigozzi Studio, Milan, Italy, engineer Giancarlo Barigozzi, engineer [Mastering] Gennaro Carone.


A recording dedicated to revival and reinterpretation of one of the most under-rated and least well-known composer and pianist of Fifties jazz, Herbie Nichols.  Perhaps  not as quirky as Monk but a kindred spirit, and an original in his own right. His recorded output is depressingly small and Mengelberg has done us a great service in bringing his work to the fore, in this remarkable reworking.

What distinguishes this recording is the fusion of Lacy’s soprano sax, in the upper register – the right hand, with Lewis’s trombone in the bass register – the left hand, expanding Melgenberg into what was Nichols piano part, reinvented and shared between the three instruments. There would be little point in Mengelberg merely emulating  Nichols, as we already have the original Nichols – what could he add? Nichol’s maddeningly catchy tunes are affectionately delivered, with superior recording technology and musicians with a passion for his work.

Original recording: House Party Starting (Nichols, 1955)

Herbie Nichols (p) Al McKibbon (b) Max Roach (d) recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ, August 1, 1955  – Blue Note BLP 1519.

Herbie-Nichols-Trio-Lex-Frontcover-1800Monk-like phrasing, not quite as impish as Monk but in total command of the performance.

Nichols discography runs as leader from 1955 to 1957, and that’s it. A rather small box-set, the complete recorded works of this man is lamentably small, fits on one CD. Thus Mengelberg does a great service in reviving his compositions in a sensitive “third stream” rendition.

Compare-the-Interpretation, with esteemed musicologist Dimitri-Shostakovich von Meerkat PhD, LJC critic in residence.

Meerkat-ProfessorMine Gott, aren’t zey both great?! Zat Herby Nicols iz genius! And ze reconstruction by Mangleburger, Lazy und Louis is  spirited and beautiful in its own right, despite needing two more players than Nichols. (Am I allowed to mention staffing costs on zis blog? How many musicologists does it take to change  light bulb, hah? He he he. My usual review fee, I take cash, cheque or Paypal)

Vinyl: Soul Note SN 1104

A nice work of engineering and pressing on the pretty dependable quality Soul Note label.


Original: Blue Note BLP 1519 Herbie Nichols Trio (1956)

Herbie-Nichols-Trio-Lex-labels-1800The best affordable copy I have come up with is a Liberty “first reissue” from 1966, with all the trimmings of Van Gelder mastering and metalwork, RVG hand -etched initials, 9M,  but no “ear” hence pressed in 1966 by Liberty’s newly acquired New York plant, All Disc, Roselle New Jersey.

The cheeky label says 767 Lexington Ave, no inc no R, but the vinyl say no ear, not deep groove, not the Original press. If any confirmation were needed, the original Blue Note inner sleeve says “27 Years” – 1966 inventory from stock. Except for First Pressing Fundementalists, this is not a reason to dismiss these “earless imposters”. The audio quality is up there with the original, sourced from the RVG master, and critically, ten years less wear and tear in the days of radiogram heavy tonearms and worn needles.

My initial copies of BLP 1519 were reissues – a Division of United Artists press (circa 1970) , and a French Pathe Marconi (1983). Both transfers, by house engineers at the time, lack the vitality of the RVG master, and I blame this for my initial lack of enthusiasm for Nichols. The late Seventies Blue Note two-fer The Third World (LA 485-H2) struck me as a similarly lacklustre production. Could be the 1955 tapes had not worn well, but Van Gelder’s magic touch really does make a difference.


The Soul Note liner notes are an original offering by critic and jazz enthusiast A B Spellman. The original BLP 1519 liner notes are an autobiographical reflection by Nichols. Both are worth a read.

Herbie-Nichols-Trio-Lex-rearcover-1800It’s a Lexington address cover, but from a second run, as the first run will have been Kakubushi Frame Cover. But it’s still nice.

When Liberty acquired Blue Note, in the deal came the stock inventory of previously printed labels and covers. Hence Liberty’s first batch of reissues enjoyed “First Reissue” status, sporting original Blue Note labels and covers.

Not a “first pressing”, but afirst reissue, if that term has any meaning in collecting nomenclature.

Collectors Corner

Tracking down a copy of the Mengelberg Soul Note was not easy. Soul Note are European recordings, not commonly found, and this copy came all the way from Paris, France from a French seller. It was the only vintage copy I could find at that moment

A word of warning. When last I looked Amazon had one copy on vinyl though when this vinyl dates from is open to conjecture. Is this a modern digital transfer to vinyl? I would put more trust in vintage Soul Note from 1985 than contemporary pressings, which I have found often disappointing  But you do get a bonus download. (Someone told me vinyl sales are up because many people who don’t have a record player buy the vinyl plus download code for vinyl’s superior artwork –  but its the download they listen to. May be one day they will get it.)

Change of Season CD Capture

However, whatever medium you prefer to listen to, the Mengelberg record is a must. I must hat-tip to the posters here who pointed it out to me – you know who you are. It has also fired up my enthusiasm for Herbie Nichols, an artist who I misjudged first time around. Fortunately, collecting his entire works will not dent your credit limit, though that original Lexington might.

7 thoughts on “Old Wine, New Bottles: Misha Mengelberg plays Herbie Nichols

  1. Thanks for this, I will certainly be on the look out for this recording. The Soul Notes and Black Saints are often gems, underrated and undervalued (and underpriced). I buy them up whenever I see them at reasonable prices.

    I am not sure what you mean that Nichols’ recorded output was so small that it fits on a single CD. Blue Note has reissued his music in a 3 CD box set and it is possible to find Japanese LP reissues of the same (“The Prophetic Herbie Nichols”). He also had an excellent trio LP called Love, Gloom, Cash, Love on another label (I am not sure what the original was; mine is a japanese Polydor reissue).

    Speaking of ‘revival projects’, I want to recommend a fine tribute album by the Herbie Nichols Project called Love is Proximity out on Soul Note. Lastly, of Steve Lacy and similar music, I like the album with Mal Waldron called Journey Without End which I think unfortunately is not easy to find.

  2. Excellent choice, LJC, this is a great record. I’ve got a Japanese repress of the HN trio, which will have to serve — it’s certainly better than the Blue Note two-fer. I didn’t even keep my copy of that — as well as having distinctly underwhelming sound, mine sounded as if it had inner-ring warping or an off-centre spindle hole or something — that tell-tale wavery off-key piano sound. A shame, because other then questionable quality control, that old beige Blue Note is a great collection.

    Hunt down Misha’s similar endeavour, Regeneration, from the preceding year on soul Note — this tackles both Herbie and Monk. I’ve never heard it — in fact, never even seen a copy, although I missed one (just) last year.

    • Thanks for the recommendation Alun, your judgement is sound. I tracked one down hiding in Scotland, should be with me Tuesday. Roswell Rudd on trombone, Steve Lacy soprano, same quintet format, Monk and Nichols tunes – sounds exciting. With a fair wind it should be with me by Tuesday. However storms predicted for Monday, who knows. Watch this space.

      • Regeneration is superb, Rudd very cool. But I love Mengelberg and Lacy together, excellent record. Both not hard to find on Discogs (I have double copies of each, all near mint and cheap). The Nichols Trio is great, I have a pretty beaten up Lex copy, still sounds great. I have not been able to find the original 10″ Nichols on Blue Note

        • The other one is titled Regeneration,issued in1983 on Soul Note SN 1054.In the line up there is Roswell Rudd on trombone and Kent Carter on bass.Both records are excellent! The name of the bass player on Change of Season is not HARJEN,but ARJEN.
          PS I always thought that my Blue Note copy of Nichols was an original Lexington,but no,you are right it is a reissue.Thanks for the deception.

  3. Nice rendition of this ridiculously undersung composer. Thanks for posting about him. Lacy’s bright tone is particularly engaging. I’d bet he covered more tunes of Nichols with the same respect and inventiveness he displayed for Monk’s tunes. Nichols’ music must be celebrated every chance we get. In a different vein, Geri Allen, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian’s take on “Shuffle Montgomery” is a burning tribute, isn’t it?

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