No idea what celestial spheres or horoscopes have to do with Martin Luther King and flying fish. But that puzzle doesn’t take anything away from the enjoyment of Cecil Payne’s Zodiac album from 1968. Immaculate, robust baritone playing. And the cream of the hard bop crop in tow.
Cecil Payne (baritone saxophone, alto saxophone), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Wynton Kelly (piano, organ), Wilbur Ware (bass), Albert Kuumba Heath (drums)
on December 16, 1968 at TownSound Studios, Englewood, New Jersey
as SES-19734 in 1973
Martin Luther King
I Know Love
Girl, You Got A Home
Ask a layman to name a baritone saxophonist, 9 times out of 10 he or she will mention the late great famous Gerry Mulligan. But of course the instrument has a grand tradition that started with pioneer Harry Carney from the Duke Ellington Orchestra and was further developed not only by Mulligan but also by, among others, Serge Chaloff, Pepper Adams, Ronnie Cuber and Nick Brignola, while Hammiet Bluiett and John Surman secured its rank in avantgarde jazz. Players like Gary Smulyan have taken the tradition to the 21st Century or experimented with new concepts like Mats Gustaffson.
Let’s not forget Cecil Payne, who never achieved fame but was a household name among musicians and fans in-the-know. Payne held the bari chair in Dizzy Gillespie’s groundbreaking bebop orchestra of the late forties and early fifties, playing on iconic tunes as Cubano Bop and Ow!. The longest association of Payne’s career is with his childhood friend from Brooklyn, New York, pianist Randy Weston. Payne is featured prominently on first-class albums as Jazz A La Bohemia and Uhuru Afrika. Other features include Kenny Dorham’s Afro-Cuban and Tadd Dameron’s The Magic Touch. Like pianist Freddie Redd before him, Payne made a superb soundtrack to the provocative off-Broadway play The Connection on Charlie Parker Records in 1962. Payne recorded well into the 90s, 2000’s Chic Boom with the top-rate, hard boppin’ tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander being the last. Payne passed away in 2007.
Strata-East, founded in 1971, was an early attempt to sustain a black-owned jazz record company by pianist Stanley Cowell and trumpeter Charles Tolliver. The session that ended up at the Zodiac album was produced by tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. Payne is assisted by Kenny Dorham, Wynton Kelly, Wilbur Ware and Albert Heath, also known as “Tootie”, also known as “Kuumba”. Stellar line-up! Dorham? Kelly? By the late sixties, the careers of these brilliant gentlemen were effectively over. It’s 1969 ok, war across the USA, another year from me and you, another year with nothing to do… The Stooges. No late period hard bop, but kicking ass nevertheless. To say the least. Mildly tragic last years for Dorham and Kelly. Dorham’s last recorded output was Clifford Jordan’s 1969 session for the 1972 Strata-East album In The World, (which also included Kelly) five years after his last album as a leader, Trompeta Toccata. Kelly’s last session was Dexter Gordon’s The Jumpin’ Blues in 1970. At this time, Payne wasn’t very prolific either in the recording studio. Many of the musicians who came out of the bop period and lived to tell had a hard time once rock music had swept the country, guns blazing.
But what they recorded leaves nothing to be desired. The breathtaking tone of Kenny Dorham lifts the ballad Martin Luther King off the ground, his sustained ice-tea-with-a-drop-of-lemon notes securing feelings of nostalgia not for Times Square but rather a view of the Monterey sunset. Dorham’s playing is peaceful yet intriguingly intense. The fluid artistry of Dorham is all over the place, not least in Slide Hampton, another ode, this time to their masterful trombone playing brother Slide Hampton, a playful bop riff that has Wynton Kelly burnin’ the bushes in Bud Powell fashion. However, Kelly imbues every line with his typical catchy bounce. The funky Latin theme of Girl, You Got A Home guides us to the era of blaxploit flics, inner city buzz, the parallel developments of black pride and the sense of foreboding in a country at war. The alternation of Latin and 4/4 sections is emphasized by Wynton Kelly’s electric piano playing, frenzied noodling which honestly is best labeled as superfluous. Cecil Payne stretches out, telling a relaxed, warm-blooded story.
Payne also makes good use of space in Flying Fish, the highlight of the album. A hard bop bossa tune on fire. The relentless Albert Heath stays firmly in the pocket, Dorham’s in familiar early sixties Blue Note territory and making the most of it, Wynton Kelly bubbles with joy in the fast lane, thoroughly investigating archetypical Latin figures, dashing off shiny tremolos and blue-in-green notes while adding crisp, descending chords on the bass keys. The ending is ad-libbed by Payne, who’s quoting You And The Night And The Music in the process. Cross-referencing. A unmistakable part of jazz which for these gentlemen, like individual tones and splendid storytelling, also came natural.