When alto saxophonist Robin Kenyatta's name appeared in the concert listings here in New York back in mid-late May, an AAJ trip was made to trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah's jazz club, Sista's Place, in the heart of Brooklyn. Kenyatta has lived in Switzerland for 20 years (where he ran a music school and taught), as well as places like Paris and Rome for several more, so many in the States had lost track of his whereabouts or assumed he had stopped playing altogether. Either you're familiar with Kenyatta's name or not, and even if his name rings a bell, it's a matter of what part of his career you may be aware of: pre- (1964-1972) or post-Atlantic recording contract (1972-present).
After being heard by trumpeter Bill Dixon at a Harlem club Kenyatta was performing at with Pucho and The Latin Soul Brothers (Kenyatta remembers, "Someone had told Bill about me, because the word was going through the grapevine that some fantastic [laughs with pride] young alto player was coming up."), he was immediately invited to be a participant in what has since become known as the historic "The October Revolution in Jazz" that took place at Judson Hall in New York City. It was a gathering of musicians associated with the "New Thing" back in 1964.
This was also where Kenyatta was to meet one of the music's giants, John Coltrane, who he fondly recalls, "Came up to me after the concert and told me how much he admired my playing...He asked me how to do certain little tricks I was doing. It was a big moment in my life - 1964. Meeting Trane was fantastic!"
From then until half a dozen years later, Kenyatta looked skyward, performing on over a dozen significant recordings, including a handful under his own leadership up until 1972. Following his recording debut with Valerie Capers in 1965, Kenyatta would contribute to such significant statements from that time period as Roswell Rudd's Everywhere, Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes, and a pair of early '70s Alan Silva recordings - Seasons and My Country, not to mention recording dates with Andrew Hill from 1967 on Blue Note (which have yet to see the light of day!).
His hard-to-find leader debut, Until (Vortex), recorded in 1966, featured bassist Walter Booker, and the recording debuts of pianist Fred Simmons and drummer Horacee Arnold. The standout title is the 11- minute Kenyatta original, "You Know How We Do", in which the quartet is augmented by trombone (Rudd), an additional bassist and drummer (Lewis Worrell, and Archie Lee respectively), as well as trumpeter Mike Lawrence who also plays with the smaller ensemble on two other tunes. It's as representative as anything recorded within the year of Coltrane's passing, and helped bring Kenyatta's youthful influences of Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt and teacher John Handy to fruition, establishing himself as one of THE altoists of the '60s alongside Marion Brown, Jimmy Lyons, Sonny Simmons and Charles Tyler. Only a few months previous, he recorded with Stitt, one of his earliest idols, on the elder saxophonist's Deuces Wild for Atlantic.
Kenyatta eventually signed with Atlantic for a series of commercially successful albums beginning with Gypsy Man (1972): "I changed. I was not interested in esoteric music. I wanted to touch a larger audience, [and] I started recording for Atlantic. Some people would like for me to revisit that free period, [though] I use different elements of 'free' playing even when I did 'Last Tango in Paris' [his big 1973 hit]. I did it in such a way that it was commercial. People didn't even realize they were listening to a 'free' style of playing."
Since then, Kenyatta has opted for more rhythm behind him, as well as occasional elements of funk, reggae, and the blues. "If I were to go back, I'd have listened to a lot of blues. I'm sorry I missed it. I got into blues a bit later, like Howlin' Wolf, early Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, [and] James Cotton." Kenyatta has also since favored utilizing electronic instruments such as synthesizers and electric keyboards (which he claims he used prior to Herbie Hancock), as well as electric bass and guitar. In the mid '70s, he recorded with bluesman Luther Allison (and more recently played behind B.B. King), but his session work since - as leader and sideman - has been sporadic at best. His latest CD ( Cool Blue, Jazz Dance), produced by ex-Miles Davis keyboard wiz Adam Holzman (who adds piano and keyboards to the sextet session), is several years old and halts a decade of not recording. Kenyatta now looks to permanently return to the hussle and bussle of the U.S. scene, becoming a NYC resident with a weekly teaching position in Boston. All About Jazz welcomes Kenyatta back to the fold and looks forward to hearing what he has in store for his devotees as well as new listeners.
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