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Kenny Dorham: Whistle Stop

Robert Spencer By

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If you’re looking for "straight ahead" jazz (in near-perfect form), here it is. Kenny Dorham plays here with the burning rhythm section John Coltrane used on Blue Train : Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Hank Mobley adds his tenor sax to this 1961 session that features Kenny mining the blues and more in a variety of contexts.

"’Philly’ Twist" is a Parkerian (Charlie, not Evan, folks) blues with energetic comping from the trio behind bouncy solos from Dorham and Mobley. Philly Joe, to whom the tune is dedicated, turns in a powerful, driving solo. An interesting contrast is set up when this tune gives way to the strolling blues funk of "Buffalo." The soloists give examples of the endless permutations of the blues form. "Buffalo" is the kind of piece that led to the development of rock and roll, but the imagination and depth put into the form here was never heard on the Top Forty.

"Sunset" begins with some sensitive voicings by Kenny Drew that lead into Dorham’s muted solo. Even with the mute, his confident, muscular individual tone is heard clearly. Mobley adopts a complementary reflective stance and turns in his best playing on this album; Drew’s solo is light-fingered and moody. "Sunset" is evidence that all modal pieces do not have to make the players sound as if they’re imitating Miles and Trane. In his Autobiography Miles tells of a night when Dorham cut him to pieces on the bandstand; while that ferocious night is lost to us, Dorham shows here how sure-handed he was in his ability to adopt innovations and create individual work of high quality.

"Whistle Stop" has a strange, vertiginous opening in which the horns seem to suggest a Mariachi band, or a dream about a Mariachi band; in any case, it very quickly gives way to a burner of ever-increasing intensity, wherein Philly Joe gives us what Anthony Braxton calls "clouds of garbage cans"—but every one precisely and correctly placed. The front line keeps up with him right up to the end, where the tequila-haze Mariachi band reappears and is folded into the theme. A curious piece: innovative here, conventional there, with excellent musicianship throughout.

Dorham’s best solo may be his trippingly eloquent effort on "Sunrise in Mexico," where Philly Joe is, once again, imaginative and precise. Here’s the morning after the intense night of "Whistle Stop": everyone is slower, but these masters are never at a loss.

Drew displays an impressive range of ideas throughout this album. On "Windmill," a Parkerian bookend to complement "’Philly’ Twist," he never strays into aimless noodling the way some avant-garde playing did later in the decade, but in mid-solo he ventures into territory reminiscent of Coltrane’s shifts on Coltrane Plays the Blues. This whole album is characterized by top-notch playing that is adventurous within established forms.

"Dorham’s Epitaph" is one minute long and sounds unfinished. It is less elegiac than grandiose, perhaps expressing a frustrated assertiveness from a player who never received the due he obviously deserved.


Title: Whistle Stop | Year Released: 1997 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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