Cecil Payne - Zodiac

Cecil Payne Zodiac (Strata-East 1968/73)

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 - Zodiac

Personnel

Cecil Payne (baritone saxophone, alto saxophone), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Wynton Kelly (piano, organ), Wilbur Ware (bass), Albert Kuumba Heath (drums)

Recorded

on December 16, 1968 at TownSound Studios, Englewood, New Jersey

Released

as SES-19734 in 1973

Track listing

Side A:
Martin Luther King
I Know Love
Girl, You Got A Home
Side B:
Slide Hampton
Follow Me
Flying Fish


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.

Sonny Rollins - Rollins Plays For Bird

Sonny Rollins Rollins Plays For Bird (Prestige 1957)

Sandwiched between the colossal Saxophone Colossus and future landmark albums Way Out West and A Night At The Village Vanguard, Rollins Plays For Bird is a mildly disappointing homage to Charlie Parker from, paraphrasing Gunther Schuller, the central figure of the erstwhile renewal of jazz.

Sonny Rollins - Rollins Plays For Bird

Personnel

Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Wade Legge (piano), George Morrow (bass), Max Roach (drums)

Recorded

on October 5, 1956 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Released

as PRLP 5097 in 1957

Track listing

Side A:
Bird Medley: I Remember You / My Melancholy Baby / Old Folks / They Can’t Take That Away From Me / My Little Suede Shoes / Star Eyes
Side B:
Kids Know
I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face


It would be hard to top the Colossus, of course. One of the classic jazz albums of all time, it displays Rollins at an early peak, inventing new possibilities for jazz and the tenor saxophone: the exuberant and structurally logic improvisation of Blue Seven, the knack of turning unconvential material like Moritat into simultaneously complex and accessible gems, the introduction of exotic (West-Indian) roots and rhythm in the unforgettable calypso tune St. Thomas (A tune credited to Rollins, but actually a traditional that was first recorded by Randy Weston as Fire Down There in 1955) and the exploration of the tenor’s full range in ballads like You Don’t Know What Love Is.

Little of that on Rollins Plays For Bird, a recording of the Sonny Rollins Quintet, which was actually the line-up of The Max Roach Quintet shortly after the passing of trumpeter Clifford Brown and pianist Richard Powell. It feels rather as if Rollins is treading water and not getting to the point one would hope for in the case of a tribute to one of his major musical forebears, Charlie Parker. The Bird Medley that takes up the full 23 minutes of side A does possess a relaxed, swinging vibe and a tacky structure where Rollins, Dorham and pianist Wade Legge subsequently guide us through the themes. Dorham’s sweet-tart tone and fluent, unhurried phrasing are assets. The confident flow of Rollins’ lines is evident, the finest moments coming when he playfully explores the low register of the tenor sax in They Can’t Take That Away From Me.

However, considering Bird, the choice of repertoire hardly does justice to the modern music giant. Indeed, Parker regularly played these tunes but one would expect songs that he wrote himself or configurations of standards that have become iconic. Moreover, a medium tempo (excluding a short double-time section) is maintained throughout, interspersed with formulaic theme-solo-theme sections and trading of fours between drums and soloists. Attention easily drifts elsewhere. Compared with the commanding title track of Freedom Suite, the cooperation of Rollins with Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford of five months later, a medley of varied Rollins originals that also takes up the whole of side A, the Bird Medley comes up a decisive second. In favor of the latter, it consisted of one spontaneous take, while the Freedom Suite was glued together from seperate tracks.

I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face is a solid if not extraordinary ballad rendition, and a common choice of Rollins, who otherwise was revered for digging up obscure or unlikely standards. The Rollins original Kids Know, like the medley also played in medium tempo, has a frolic, catchy theme. Alas, Max Roach, seemingly not in the best of moods, practically drags it to death.

Just one week later, the clouds parted considerably and the quintet (including Ray Bryant) delivered the sprightly, inspired album Max Roach + 4. Six months later, Rollins delivered on the promise of Rollins Plays For Bird with the A Night At The Village Vanguard album, reviving standards and Parker contrafacts with a level of spontaneity and experimentation that has set a standard to this day.

Considering a giant like Rollins, expectations run, and ran, high. In this respect, Rollins Plays For Bird underachieves considerably.

Kenny Dorham - Trompeta Toccata

Kenny Dorham Trompeta Toccata (Blue Note 1964)

Nothing prepares you for what’s going to happen after Kenny Dorham’s lyrical opening statements in duet with the piano of Trompeta Toccata’s title track. What follows is a buoyant Afro-Cuban gem, the opening track of one of the trumpeter’s finest recordings.

Kenny Dorham - Trompeta Toccata

Personnel

Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone), Tommy Flanagan (piano), (Richard Davis, bass), Albert Heath (drums)

Recorded

on September 14, 1964 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Released

as BLP 8418 in 1964

Track listing

Side A:
Trompeta Toccata
Night Watch
Side B:
Mamacita
The Fox


Trompeta Toccata suggests Dorham played cousin to Blue Note’s front-line albums of the period like Andrew Hill’s Point Of Departure and Herbie Hancock’s My Point Of View. Dorham played on Point Of Departure alongside Richard Davis. But those albums are more dark-hued. Trompeta Toccata bears a lithe charm all its own. Like his colleagues, Dorham stretched the boundaries of hard bop, playing more freely, with a varied, more percussive style. At the same time, Dorham retained his trademark lyrical style and sweet-sour tone. The combination of the experimental Richard Davis, combative Joe Henderson, elegant Tommy Flanagan and versatile Albert Heath guarantees a lot of interesting textures.

Trompeta Toccato didn’t suddenly came out of the blue. Both Dorham’s albums that preceded it, Matador (with Jackie McLean) and Una Mas broadened the horizons of the trumpeter. Dorham had cooperated with Joe Henderson as well, notably on the abovementioned Una Mas and Henderson’s dates Page One (that included the oft-covered Dorham winner Blue Bossa), Our Thing and In & Out, a title that suggests the same modus operandi as Trompeta Toccata. A key figure on a lot of Blue Note’s vanguard sessions (A series of Andrew Hill albums, Joe Henderson’s In & Out, Booker Ervin’s The Freedom Book) and the iconic Out To Lunch from Eric Dolphy) is the brilliant bassist Richard Davis. Davis’s cutting edge bass playing, including virtuoso sliding technique, is strongly featured on Trompeta Toccata. His work on the title track, advanced but firm and coherent at the same time, is a gas. The contrast between the experiments of Davis and Tommy Flanagan’s impressionistic voicings is very enjoyable.

Meanwhile Dorham and Henderson are preoccupied with the melody, stressing staccato runs that start or finish with unexpected notes. Dorham’s husky edge and playful growls mix well with Joe Henderson’s virile, angular phrases. Dorham had been a premier advocate of the Carribean theme in jazz since the early fifties. The title track, consisting of a contagious 6/8 rhythm pattern, is one of his liveliest performances.

Joe Henderson’s Mamacita is equally catching. It’s a more mellow, less pithy take than Henderson’s re-visit on his 1967 Milestone album The Kicker. The medium-tempo Night Watch’s elaborate structure doesn’t take anything away from its unmistakable blues feeling. Dorham sprinkles the landscape of the fast-paced The Fox with a shower of elegant, fluent lines.

I like the fact that Blue Note resisted the temptation to go for a hit record by putting a more straightforward danceable track like Mamacita at the start of the album, as the label often did. (which worked out pretty swell, by the way) But for Dorham’s album, Blue Note favored the lengthy title track as the opener. It immediately states Dorham’s intentions and attributes to the album’s coherence. I’m fond of the album’s brisk, ebullient atmosphere.

Unfortunately, it was Kenny Dorham’s last album as a leader. In hindsight, the underappreciated Dorham, ‘the uncrowned king of the trumpet’, as Art Blakey so aptly put it in his 1955 live show introductions for the original Jazz Messengers (as captured on Live At The Bohemia I & II), was ready for public acceptance. More than ready, having stood at the helm of bebop alongside Charlie Parker in the late forties and early fifties and with a batch of classic albums as Afro-Cuban and Quiet Kenny and sideman appearances on a series of outstanding hard bop recordings in his pocket. Instead, Dorham slid into obscurity and untimely passed away in 1972 due to kidney disease.

But if you’re going to have a swan song, Trompeta Toccata more than qualifies.