Friday, April 29, 2011

Kenny Dorham - Afro Cuban

Kenny Dorham-trumpet

J.J Johnson-trombone

Hank Mobley-tenor Sax

Cecil Payne-baritone sax

Horace Silver-piano

Oscar Pettiford-bass

Percy Heath-bass

Carlos “potato” Valdes-conga

Art Blakey-drums

Kenny Dorham was as talented as his peers, holding his own against the original wave of bop innovators whom he played alongside night after night and then going on to add his voice to that of the subsequent generation of young lions, who expanded upon those first theories. He maintained a presence among the next generation of musician/artists, working on various ideas in tandem, creating en-mass a body of work which is still as exciting and important today as when it was first conceived.

Kenny Dorham had his first steady gig in 1944 after leaving the army where he was also a prize fighter of reputation, in Russell Jacquet’s band. After serving time in several big bands including Lionel Hampton’s, he began to play with the smaller bop ensembles. He had begun to have his playing noticed with such early appearances as on Billy Eckstine’s Mister B and The Boys (1946 Savoy). This initial notice allowed him to cut his teeth in early small ensembles of Bird and Bud Powell. Most notably during this time, he replaced Miles Davis in one of Bird’s combos for several years.

Throughout his career Kenny Dorham liked to surround himself with familiar musicians, ones with whom he felt a rapport. The drummer Max Roach shared the band stand with him under Charlie Parker’s leadership for the Royal Roost Sessions (1948 Savoy). Over the space of various record labels and several decades he and Max would team up, including a time when Kenny would replace, the then recently deceased, Clifford Brown in the Brown/Roach combo.

During the giddy hey day of early bop, Kenny had been overshadowed by Fats Navarro. Ensuing years have seen somewhat, a reversal of fortune. There is no “Fats” school of playing, but aspects of Kenny’s technique are still fueling young horn players.

While time has not completely opaqued his name and contributions in the same way as that of fellow trumpeter Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham has not fully received his due. Part of the problem lay in the fact that some of his best work was produced as a “sideman” on other people’s dates. Kenny Dorham did create some now classic albums under his own name, and even as a sideman, but he never had a steady, long term group of his own with which to build an audience off of. Regardless of a lack of a permanent group, he did often appear with the same roster of artists, only the date’s “leader” being a variance.

The other main handicap to his ascension was that, even though he did tour and travel early in his career while part of big bands and early bop-bands, his was never a jazz evangical mission in the same sense as Miles Davis. Gaining exposure and name recognition through extensive touring. Most of his jazz life was spent in New York with the occasional foray to the West Coast.

Kenny Dorham had two distinct “golden” periods. The 1950’s saw him playing complex hard-bop with its main architects. This first phase is where Afro Cuban is from.

In the forties Art Blakey had originally created two earlier, more big band-ish versions of the Jazz Messengers, a septet and a seventeen piece band. A decade later, he revived the name, with a harder driving sound and the idea of making it more of a “jazz collective”.

Pianist Horace Silver had been backing sax player Stan Getz, Lester Young and Miles Davis. Drummer Art Blakey had been on some of the same dates and recruited him for the immortal two live discs Night at Birdland Volumes 1 & 2 (1954 Blue Note) which also featured Lou Donaldson and Clifford Brown. This was the birth of hard-bop. A genre which built off of bop but presented new rhythmic and sonic possibilities. This was also the appearance of the first, short lived new incarnation of The Jazz Messengers. The group was a collective in as much, they all shared writing chores and who ever found employment is the name which would be showcased before “and the Jazz Messengers”.

The “second” incarnation of the group featured Hank Mobley on tenor sax and Kenny Dorham on trumpet. Between the two line ups of the group there was a year of “Jazz Messenger” inactivity during which none of the artists remained silent. Horace Silver was doing a residency at Minton’s Playhouse as a result of his appearance on the first 50’s Jazz Messenger discs. Those records opened up new sonic considerations for him and he enlisted tenor sax player Hank Mobley to continue down the path he started a year earlier. The second version of The Jazz Messengers appeared on “Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers” in full. During this time they recorded Hank Mobley’s first solo album Messages (Blue Note) minus Kenny, Donald Byrd’s Transition (Blue Note) and Bird’s Eye View also minus Kenny and Kenny’s own Afro Cuban. Afro Cuban added trombonist J.J Johnson and baritone sax, conga to the line up. Much like their immediate Messenger predecessors, there would be two live discs, Live at the Bohemia (Blue Note) which capture the band at their best. They went on to record an album for Columbia.

Unfortunately it was felt by the rest of the band that Art Blakey had short changed them when pay day came. A mass musician migration ensued. Horace Silver would now mainly lead his own ensemble of which Hank Mobley was an early charter member. Horace would maganimously allow Art Blakey to keep the Jazz Messenger moniker. To capitalize on the Jazz Messenger popularity, the various ex-members would all start groups with similar names, Kenny leading The Jazz Prophets. Despite the talent of all involved, these groups were all short lived. Horace Silver having the most success in band longevity a few years later with the Junior Cook/Blue Mitchell version of his group.

Afro Cuban is a compelling album. It is not straight out hard-bop. The ensemble is slightly larger than what would become the standard hard-bop de-rigor trumpet and sax front line. It is not merely big band either. The combination of jazz drum kit with the added percussionist give all the songs a groove that is noticeable but never appears overly urgent. Throughout the album there is a tropical feel but not all the horns try to play only in a Latinized manner.

J.J Johnson had experimented with tropical beats on his own album The Eminent J.J Johnson Volume 2 (Blue Note), which featured Hank Mobley and Sabu Martinez on conga. His tone, as always is clean, clear allowing for greater appreciation of what he plays, as opposed to the slurred lines often employed by trombonists before J.J.

This is early Hank Mobley and although there are no weak links on this album, he truly shines. His tone at this point has the warm round sound. Fully showing his Lester Young influence while not sounding as laconic or fragile.

Art Blakey is important to jazz, if for no other reason, than for all the greats who passed through his band over the years. With few exceptions, the list includes jazz’s “who’s who”. Those who were not directly a Jazz Messenger usually had at least one Messenger in their band. While I think Art Blakey is a good drummer and I own many Jazz Messenger records, I am not a big fan of his playing in itself. My main issue is I sometimes find his rolling thunder approach distracting from both the piece and other players. Here though, is found a more sedate and nuanced Art Blakey than is to be heard on other dates.

Horace Silver is found here in his usual funky-percussive best. In all his albums he would never deviate too far from his established hard-bop way of playing or composing, but it is all good. He is one of the greats.

All the pieces on the album were written by Kenny except one, Basheer’s Dream, which was written by Jazztett member Gigi Gryce. This song features the baritone sax stating the melody, then the rest of the group enters. It is refreshing to hear the baritone played with a little more fire than is wont to be found on the cool West Coast style music that usually utilized baritone. Like all the other pieces on the album it has an infectious groove.

One of my other favorite tracks is Afrodisia. It seamlessly mixes a Latin groove with hard-bop sounding solos. When the trumpet solo ends and the sax solo starts, if you listen you will hear the rhythm shift tempos several times before the trombone takes over. Simple, yet dramatic.

Lotus Flower is a tropical ballad which manages to conjure up both Duke Ellington and the musical form Bolero (style not Ravel piece). Kenny Dorham’s tone switches between a soft whisper and brighter sounding solo statements.

This CD collects what had originally been two 10”Lps. The two sessions were similar in feel and there is no jarring effect in hearing them combined.

Although I highly recommend this CD, a few bones of contention for me: This is just a regular CD, it has not received any special remastering. The sound is not bad, but one can imagine what the Rudy Van Gelder (RVG) version would offer up to the listener. The original liner notes are reproduced with a small addendum concerning the last bonus track’s name, the real one being found after the fact. It would have been nice, considering collectively, the body of work these artists all went on to do, if we got “Another look at…” which are new, added notes found on all the Blue Note RVG series. The CD does include two tracks which do not appear on the LP configuration, but one song has its alternate take right after it as opposed to putting it after the sequence of original album tracks.

The appeal of Kenny Dorham for me is both his tone and writing. He could play soft ballads, but it never came across as an affectation. Kenny could also play hard. What is interesting in his more muscular playing is that unlike all his peers he never went into the showy-piercing upper registers nor did he help sow the seeds of what would become the splatter school. Everybody else could be found in one if not both of these places. Yet Kenny found a third unused way. This unique grace helped earn him the nick-name “Quiet Kenny”.

His writing, from his earliest days was always complex, avoiding all of the quickly established bop and hard-bop formulas. Low paydays made him often have to have day jobs in munitions and medical plants and once at a sugar refinery. He would use his writing skills to ghost write complex charts under the pseudonym “Gill Fuller”.

The sixties found Kenny still artistically evolving. This was his second golden period. Kenny was supportive of the new up and coming younger generation of players. Count Basie famously, was one of the few musicians not directly connected to Miles Davis’s The Birth Of The Cool (Blue Note) to realize how important this “new thing” was. The Count was also aware of Thelonious Monk’s genius well before many others. Coleman Hawkins, one of the holy trinity of the first great tenor sax players (Ben Webster, Lester Young being the other two) employed Thelonious Monk and also recorded an album with young Turk Sonny Rollins(Sonny Meets Hawk RCA/Victor 1963). Unlike these two, Kenny ‘s playing and writing always smoothly integrated well into what was currently going on. Kenny managed to transcend participating in mere musical experiment of two different schools/generations.

His short lived Jazz Prophets had many of Blue Note’s young lions. Herbie Hancock, Kenny Burrell and future Jazz Messenger Bobby Timmins all passed through.

The one person from his short lived group whose career Kenny would have a profound effect on was the young Joe Henderson. Joe was part of the second, great holy trio of tenor sax players (Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane being the other two). Their first recorded partnership was Kenny’s Una Mas (Blue Note) which borrowed the tropical leanings of Afro Cuban, but added an even harder edge. Together they went on to record Joe’s Page One (Blue Note) which featured the song Recorda Me by Joe, written when he was only a teenager and also the now standard Blue Bossa written by Kenny. McCoy Tyner most famously, of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, is in the piano chair.

After these albums Joe and Kenny would do In and Out (Blue Note) which had both Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner from John Coltrane’s band and the album Our Thing (Blue Note) which was the debut of composer/pianist Andrew Hill.

While nurturing the next wave of jazz greats the sixties found Kenny serving as a consultant for the Harlem Youth Act which was an anti poverty program. He also served as a member of the board for the New York Neophonic Orchestra.

Sadly the end of the decade saw a decline in Kenny’s health. 1972 he died of kidney failure.

While he never wildly altered his artistic mission or style there is a progression which appears throughout his body of work. A subtle evolution, never enough to alienate fans unable to recognize a new style but also managing to avoid churning out cookie cutter albums of formulaic jazz.

What better nod to a man of so generous a spirit than to check out one of his many great albums?

-Maxwell Chandler- March '06

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