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Kenny Dorham: Trumpeter Laureate


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Kenny Dorham remains a giant, belonging on any short list of trumpet immortals.
The critic Gary Giddins once wrote that Kenny Dorham's name is "virtually synonymous with 'underrated'." Which raises a question. Is it possible for a musician who has achieved widespread fame for non-recognition to remain "deserving" of the description?

Possibly so, if Art Blakey's anointing of Dorham as the "uncrowned trumpet king" is to be taken seriously. Moreover, when you review even Dorham's more publicized credentials—Charlie Parker's preferred front-line partner 1948-50, trumpeter on the seminal Horace Silver session (And the Jazz Messengers, Blue Note, 1954) that introduced "The Preacher" and the "hard bop" movement, composer of "Blue Bossa" and the ubiquitous intermission "Theme"—the more's the wonder his name rarely comes up in discussions of the giants.

Kenny Dorham was the thinking person's trumpet player. He eschewed the passionate romanticism of Clifford Brown, the dramatic flare of Lee Morgan, and the brassy virtuosity of Freddie Hubbard in favor of unfailing melodic logic and economical lyricism, lightened by a frequently playful, puckish approach. He let the music come to him, using his smallish yet centered, round sound to deconstruct and then reconstruct its most essential phrases into gemlike solos. Besides the warmth and abundant humor, there's an unmistakable tenderness and vulnerability in Dorham's playing that not only touches a deep emotional core but more often than not sets off the luminous triumph of each of his poignant creations.

It can only be hoped that the reissue of these two "classic" Dorham sessions—sufficiently distinct from one another to represent the frequently paradoxical playing of this remarkable musician— will not only help redress the neglect Dorham has received, but also introduce listeners to one of the more original and infectious sounds in American music.

Kenny Dorham
Quiet Kenny

The title of the 1959 date, Quiet Kenny, is almost redundant, less descriptive of the session than of Dorham himself, who plays no differently here than in the explosive groups of Blakey or Silver. Thoughtful, playful, lyrical but never effusive, Dorham is, as Dan Morgenstern calls him in the notes for this latest RVG edition, the most "poetic" of trumpet players.

The playing is on a level with Dorham's best work elsewhere (Whistle Stop, Blue Note, 1961; Una Mas, Blue Note, 1963), but there are two undeniable bonuses: Dorham's is the only horn, giving him more valuable time to tell his compelling stories; and the pianist is Tommy Flanagan, whose dynamically nuanced, carefully sculpted lines are the perfect match for the trumpet's exquisitely crafted statements.

A newcomer to Dorham's music might be forgiven for being decidedly unimpressed by a ballad treatment such as Dorham's reading of "Alone Together," so minimalist and naked as to appear reductive if not amateurish. Yet careful listening reveals that no other musician prepares and "cures" each note like Dorham before launching it on a lovely albeit fragile cushion of sound. And few play with so little pose and showmanship, simply trusting the substance of the music itself to make sense—intellectually and emotionally—without reliance on extraneous effects.

At times Dorham's horn sounds like one or two valves are stuck, limiting him to endless repetition of a single note. For example, on what is arguably his best all-around session, Whistle Stop, he makes an adventure out of repeating the tonic note on a blues in F ("Buffalo ). He alternates between tonguing and legato articulations; approaches the note from slightly above, then below, the pitch; varies the articulations by allowing the sound to explode one moment and implode the next; and finally relinquishes the note to the chord sequence and dances with it, via potentially "corny" emphasis on the first beat of each double eighth-note pattern, to a supremely felicitous close.

"Lotus Blossom," the opener on Quiet Kenny, has a similar approach, demonstrating not only the leader's rare economy but his ability to connect phrases in a manner that masks structural markers. Finally, Dorham's playful yet respectful treatments of the sentimental chestnut "My Ideal" and the normally fulsome-sounding Harry James' vehicle, "I Had The Craziest Dream," are so seductively guileless a listener can feel guiltless pronouncing them simply "charming.

Kenny Dorham
Trompeta Toccata
Blue Note Records

Leave it to the least showy, most thoughtful of trumpet players to compose and perform a Trompeta Toccata (show piece) and make it work. Any new reissue of a Kenny Dorham date is welcome, guaranteed to be full of Dorham's inventive twists and surprises as a soloist as well as composer. But as the very last recording session by Dorham as leader (it was recorded in 1964), this one merits special consideration.

The presence of the trumpeter's favorite frontline companion at this time, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, will further enhance its value to some listeners. It's hard to argue against Henderson's main predecessor, Hank Mobley, as more compatible with Dorham's deceptive facility and melodic logic, but the presence of Henderson seemed to push Dorham into more adventurous territory as both composer and player. Henderson's Coltrane-inspired harmonics and overtones during his somewhat edgy, rough-hewn solos practically required an answer from Dorham in the form of more adventurous solo constructions and modal compositions.

The title piece is one-of-a-kind yet vintage Dorham, taking the music of the bull fight, toreador and matador, stripping it of all the gratuitous trappings, and distilling it to its dramatic and poignant flamenco essence. Besides the artistry of Dorham, the talents of both Henderson and bassist Richard Davis are also heard to full advantage (thankfully, Davis' strong but lengthy solo stops just short of changing the character of this delicately balanced tone poem into a vehicle for bass).

In some respects, the piece is a highly concentrated, orchestrally spare version of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans recording of Rodrigo's famous "Concierto De Aranjuez on the Sketches Of Spain album (Columbia, 1959), with Tommy Flanagan's piano as the subtle, colorful counterpart of Evans' image-rich, evocative orchestration. (Flanagan is one of the few pianists whose touch is so personal, so distinctive that not even Van Gelder can homogenize it.)

Trompeta Toccata offers a later, more idiosyncratic Dorham, sounding vulnerable and breathy one instant and dynamically brilliant and virtuosic the next. It's when he moves to the upper register, without betraying a hint of strain or pushing, that his sound really opens up, "blossoming" into bright radiance and fullness. Then there's that inimitable "growl" (sounding more like a cornered, frightened and ornery kitten) for added tonal variety and humor—possibly Dorham's response to Henderson's husky harmonics and percussive articulations.

The "growl" shows up not only in the Toccata but in the debut of "Blue Bossa," from Henderson's own debut session, Page One (Blue Note, 1963), as well as in the title tune of Dorham's Una Mas, which again matches him with the textures of Henderson's unshaven, masculine sound. But one of the tunes, "The Fox," harkens back to the kind of challenging, rapidly changing chord sequence that only Dorham, with the possible exception of Mobley, could negotiate with such effortless facility and consummate command. It's the one tune on both of the present sessions that captures the trumpeter at his lithe best, putting on the sort of harmonic clinic that characterizes his indispensable on-location Blakey session pairing him with Mobley (Jazz Messengers: At the Cafe Bohemia, Blue Note, 1955).

As the quintessential musician's musician, never showing a need to play merely to "impress," Dorham seemed intent on precluding others from judging his music by writing his own epitaph in the form of an extended orchestral work. Seeing it to completion remained his dream to the end, and somewhat sadly his album Whistle Stop concludes with a 69-second fragment of that dream, "Dorham's Epitaph.

Even without the grand closure of a fully-realized requiem, Kenny Dorham remains a giant, belonging on any short list of trumpet immortals. In fact, once Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown have been accounted for, it can be difficult to move any further down the list without at least giving serious thought to the insertion of Kenny Dorham's name. Given more familiar and influential trumpet styles, it can take a while for a new listener to "get" Dorham. Soon, however, it's impossible to get enough of him.

Tracks and Personnel

Quiet Kenny

Tracks: Lotus Blossom; My Ideal; Blue Friday; Alone Together; Blue Spring Shuffle; I Had The Craziest Dream; Old Folks; Mack The Knife.

Personnel: Kenny Dorham: trumpet; Tommy Flanagan: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Arthur Taylor: drums.

Trompeta Toccata

Tracks: Trompeta Toccata; Night Watch; Mamacita; The Fox.

Personnel: Kenny Dorham: trumpet; Joe Henderson: tenor sax; Tommy Flanagan: piano; Richard Davis: bass; Albert Heath: drums.

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