Hunting vintage jazz vinyl records in the Nutmeg State
Kenny Dorham – Trompetta Toccata
Kenny Dorham – Mamacita
Kenny Dorham – The Fox
By the early-mid 1960s, Blue Note Records was feeling some financial pressures. Looking back at their catalog from this time period, it would appear that they were releasing challenging material on a regular basis, the kind of releases one could easily assume were not typically cash cows. And while they weren’t necessarily the cause for the label’s struggles, they were essentially bankrolled by one recording: Lee Morgan’s mega-hit “The Sidewinder.” The boogaloo craze helped the label to stay afloat several years longer in spite of the avant grade-leaning recordings the label put out on a regular basis during that decade. Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch was the most “out” recording on the label to that point, and it would be several years before that record would be challenged by future Blue Note artists Cecil Taylor and Eddie Gale. Andrew Hill, a forward thinking pianist with a rollicking and meandering way of playing the blues who had previously appeared as a sideman on several BN dates, recorded prolifically for the label and released 6 albums in 3 years (with enough leftover material to provide for several later releases). Other albums from the time period by Grachan Moncur III, Jackie McLean, and Bobby Hutcherson draw on an all-star cast of Blue Note stalwarts in their efforts to further push the envelope.
The common thread through several of these records is bassist Richard Davis. When I first heard Point of Departure as a college freshman, my ears were still a little confused by the organized chaos found in this period of jazz, but I was intensely drawn to that record for the heights the musicians would reach as a result of the music’s freedom. The only thing that frustrated me was Davis’s bass playing, particularly moments like his unaccompanied solo on “New Monastery.” It sounds ignorant now, but back then I took his full devotion to new sounds and ideas as a lack of talent. Clearly this makes no sense – the majority of the record features walking bass lines that try to keep at least a faint outline of tonal organization. I may have even had the impression that Davis was the only bassist willing to play this music, or that he possessed the skill to back the musicians but could not play solos. “We’re going to do another one of those crazy new thing records. Let’s get Davis for bass – he’s crazy enough to do it.”
Fast forward about a dozen years, and I arrive at this stereo original pressing of Trompeta Toccata. This is Kenny Dorham’s last recording of notoriety before his early death at age 48 and you can immediately tell that he was headed in an exciting direction. Recorded just months after Point of Departure, the opening title track sounds like the trumpeter’s take on “New Monastery” with some additional inspiration from the A side of Matador, Dorham’s record with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean on the United Artists label, released in 1962. “Trompetta Toccata” draws comparisons to both the modal nature of the opening cut from that earlier record, as well as the dramatic solo statements given throughout McLean’s three-part epic “Melanie”. Dorham’s playing, even in a state where his physical powers have deteriorated a shade, is nothing if not fearless. He plays two rather percussive solos on this tune that could not stray much farther from his bop roots. In the other three cuts of the record, Dorahm shows his elder statesman status when it comes to combo modern jazz. He plays with molto bravado in his solo on “Night Watch” and works with the rhythm section to craft some incredible moments. On the head of “Mamacita,” which swings against the steady latin drive of Al “Tootie” Heath, Dorham swoops the melody into the upper echelon of hip with his veteran sense of style.
Throughout the record, Davis is a catalyst for risk taking, as he defies the conventional role of the bass at just the right moments. Joe Henderson of course emerged on the scene right when modal music and bebop tradition had somewhat equal clout, and naturally he feels at home in both settings. The remainder of the band, Heath and Tommy Flanagan, are relatively curious. Neither musician spent much of their time playing in edgier settings like this one, though both are known for being flexible. Heath seems to step in wherever needed, and does a masterful job navigating the charts of his saxophonist brother during this period in time. Flanagan is truly the odd many out, spending the early sixties as the first call on piano for Swingville LPs led by the likes of Coleman Hawkins and Joe Newman. He is flexible like Heath but ultimately plays in an understated fashion. And that may be the crux of it – it almost seems as if Trompetta Toccata is intended to be an Andrew Hill record without the pianist-composer at the helm. The tunes composed by Dorahm (all but “Mamacita” which is a blues by Henderson) are heavily influenced by Hill but leave Dorham to make the largest impression on the listener as the leader and the visionary.
“The Fox” features one of Dorham’s typical crafty and creative solos, perhaps one of his most compelling. It is on the closing tune that I feel Dorham and his crew have emulated the sense of exploration found on Andrew Hill’s landmark album from earlier the same year. The harmonic planing effect that Richard Davis achieves through portions of this tune have a direct correlation to moments found on Point of Departure, and both records arrive at surreal moments typically associated with classical music from the impressionist period when that technique was born. Kenny was on a completely different level than his peers at this point in his career and refused to simply catch boogaloo fever. Nor did he wish to make the transition from bebop master to hard bop legend. He chose to move further forward, but didn’t go “all the way out,” choosing instead to find a path where he applied what he knew to where he wanted to try to end up. It would have been amazing to find out exactly where he was headed.