JAZZ CONTRASTED: TRIBUTE TO KENNY DORHAM
A great trumpeter who emerged from the classic bebop era of the mid-1940s, Kenny Dorham (1924-72) was a major musical force throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. He was a member of the Charlie Parker Quintet during 1948-49, the original version of the Jazz Messengers and the Max Roach Quintet, led the Jazz Prophets, and featured the young Joe Henderson in his 1960s quintet. A very lyrical and thoughtful trumpeter who was also a skilled composer (his “Blue Bossa” has been a standard for decades), Dorham fit comfortably into both bop and hard bop settings.
One of the trumpeter’s daughters, Evette Dorham who lives in Atlanta, is working on a book about his life. “I remember going to bed as a child, hearing him composing pieces at the piano including ‘Lotus Blossom.’ Everything was planned, thoughtful and worked out in his music and his composing. He loved his fellow musicians, many of whom visited our home including Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and the Adderley Brothers. Max Roach and Jimmy Heath were also good friends. My father was a trailblazer, one of several who made their marks in the 1940s and ‘50s. He was very passionate about his music, doing his best to keep it pure and to be true to the music that he believed in.”
The Atlanta-based trumpeters Russell Gunn and Joe Gransden are longtime friends who decided that a Kenny Dorham tribute was long overdue, particularly since the Dorham family lives in Atlanta. Gunn remembers, “Joe and I had wanted to do a project together for some time. Lee Morgan is my favorite trumpeter and Kenny Dorham is Joe’s. Dorham was the more logical choice because of his compositions. I like his lyrical approach to improvisation and the singing quality of his tone which seems effortless. He was more of a thinker than a power player, and he left us a lot of rewarding compositions to choose from.” Gransden agrees. “Kenny Dorham was a very underrated trumpeter. I love his tone, lyricism and ideas. He is one of my favorite improvisers, and he wrote so many great tunes. Russell and I picked out some of our favorite songs of his, wrote a few arrangements, had a quick rehearsal, and recorded the music in two days.”
The two trumpeters are joined by three of the top players in Atlanta: pianist Louis Heriveaux (who Gunn calls “Amazing. He is one of the best piano players that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with”), bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Clay Hulet who has worked with Gransden for 12 years. The trio’s timeless playing would have fit in perfectly on a vintage Blue Note album yet sounds fresh and original within the style.
Starting off with the fiery “Philly Twist” and continuing through such Dorham pieces as a blazing version of “Lotus Blossom” a rapid “La Villa,” the blues “Buffalo,” the catchy “Una Mas,” a hard-swinging “Straight Ahead” and the heartfelt “Dorham’s Epitaph,” the musicians are heard in prime form, with the two trumpeters being complementary, often quite fiery, and mutually inspiring. Rather than trying to copy Dorham (which would make little sense), they instead explore his music in their own individual voices. Gunn is heard on the right speaker (he leads off “Lotus Blossom”) and is the only trumpeter on the warm ballad “La Mesha” (named after Dorham’s youngest daughter Lamesha) and “Chicago Blues.” Gransden, who is heard in the left speaker and has “Fair Weather” as his feature, sings the lone non-Dorham piece of the project, “Chicago Blues,” a number that came from Kenny Dorham’s only vocal album.
I’m very excited about the project that Joe and Russell put together,” says Evette Dorham. “We are honored that Joe and Russell did this recording. I love the way that they play his music.”
Russell Gunn (whose recent musical experiences include playing with R&B and pop groups, producing rap albums, and improvising on Black Sabbath songs with the Electric Butterfly) and Joe Gransden (who is also a notable singer, performing with his own trio, quartet and big band on over 300 gigs a year) have come together very successfully to pay tribute to one of their musical heroes. As Gunn says, “Doing the Kenny Dorham tribute is a breath of fresh air. It is almost like going home for me, playing the music that I grew up with.” The results are fun, exhilarating, swinging, and a perfect tribute to the great Kenny Dorham.
Scott Yanow, author of 10 books including Bebop, Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76