Graded on a Curve: Kenny Dorham,
Quiet Kenny

When it comes to Modern Jazz trumpet, few were better than McKinley Howard “Kenny” Dorham. His credits are vast, including support roles, membership in cooperative combos, and as a leader. One of the best of the latter, Quiet Kenny, recorded in November of 1959 and released in February of the following year, is getting reissued by Craft Recordings for the June 12, 2021 drop of Record Store Day. Featuring an unimpeachable quartet with Dorham the sole horn, the record’s seven tracks transcend any titular insinuations of the tranquil. Instead, it’s a non-ostentatious display of collective mastery with Dorham in the driver’s seat. In other words, it’s a joy for the ear.

In my short capsule rave of Quiet Kenny written for this very website back in 2017, I offered that Dorham’s “stature as a major post-bop trumpeter has flagged not a whit.” Giving that statement some further thought, I’m confronted with the possibility that the high regard to which I referred applies mainly to heavy-duty jazz heads, a regenerative community that has kept Quiet Kenny and indeed much of Dorham’s output in print (on CD and now digitally if not necessarily on vinyl) for decades.

This consistency of availability can propose a consensus of esteem for the trumpeter, but it occurs to me that some folks in the here and now who are curious about jazz might not even know who the guy is. This is worth ruminating upon, for it was Dorham who stepped into Charlie Parker’s Quintet in 1948, replacing Miles Davis (Dorham’s recording debut began in 1945 on a 78rpm disc cut for the Musicraft label by Mercer Ellington and His Orchestra).

Dorham was also a Jazz Messenger (early, before that aggregation essentially became the Art Blakey Allstars), played with Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, joined Max Roach’s Quintet after the untimely death by car accident of the trumpet phenom Clifford Brown, and to jump ahead to the ’60s, contributed to one of the true masterworks in the jazz canon, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure.

But the mention of Brown points to how Dorham’s career is mostly defined by longevity and high quality performances. He died of kidney disease in 1972, far too young at age 48, though his passing isn’t tragic as is the case with Brown, or sordid, as it is with another trumpet prodigy, Lee Morgan, who was shot on stage at Slug’s Saloon by his common-law wife earlier in 1972 (Morgan was 33 years of age.)

Dorham also lacked the sheer adaptability of Freddie Hubbard, who is featured on a varied half-dozen canonical recordings that match Point of Departures level of greatness, while far exceeding Dorham’s discography as leader. Dorham was also something of a post-bop traditionalist; other than a troubled and ultimately unsuccessful ’50s Cecil Taylor session that included John Coltrane, Hill’s album is the closest Dorham got to the avant-garde.

Contrasting, Hubbard played on innovative LPs by Ornette Coleman, Trane, Eric Dolphy, and Oliver Nelson. But the traditionalism cut both ways, for on the other side of the spectrum, there are no fusion-era commercial hits like Donald Byrd’s Black Byrd in Dorham’s oeuvre. By the arrival of fusion, he was largely off the scene.

I no longer recall my introduction to Dorham’s work as a leader (I suspect I first heard him on Monk’s Genius of Modern Music: Volume 2) but do remember that Quiet Kenny was one of the last albums I checked out, mostly because, per the title, I assumed that it was dominated by ballads and in turn would be overly sedate.

I point out the above here because Quiet Kenny is actually a superb entry point into Dorham’s discography, thriving through the august personnel of pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Art Taylor. I could list numerous credits for each, but it suffices to relate that earlier in 1959 all three contributed to Coltrane’s groundbreaking Giant Steps.

Although it was originally issued by the Prestige subsidiary New Jazz, an imprint that was known for its ventures outside the bop mainstream, it would be inaccurate to call Quiet Kenny a groundbreaker, though that doesn’t mean it’s not a masterpiece. It begins with the up-tempo and Latin tinged bop of “Lotus Blossom,” which along with establishing a high bar for the ensemble’s level of engagement is a fine if succinct showcase for Dorham in terms of melody (it’s his tune, one of three originals on the record) and sturdiness and fluidity of improvisation.

Dorham’s skills, in particular the naturally achieved beauty of his tone (likely to please fans of Chet Baker), elevate the LP’s first true ballad, a reading of the standard “My Ideal,” but also helping is Flanagan, a pianist consistently sensitive who never falters into the soporific. It leads into “Blue Friday,” my pick for Quiet Kenny’s standout, partly because the mid-tempo groove stretches out to nearly nine minutes, the longer duration highlighting the inspired soloing of Dorham, Flanagan, and then Chambers.

A commanding version of the ballad standard “Alone Together” separates “Blue Friday” from the set’s final Dorham composition, Quiet Kenny’s second longest track “Blue Spring Shuffle,” which begins with Chambers alone (returning him to the fore later with another fine solo). However, maybe the cut’s strongest attribute is Taylor’s attention to his cymbals as captured by Rudy Van Gelder.

Taylor’s playing is indicative of the subtleties that solidify this record’s overall value. Another is in the crisp delivery of “I Had the Craziest Dream,” its energies carrying over to the unusually potent reading of “Old Folks” that serves as the album’s finale. Other pressings, including at least one vinyl edition, add a version of “Mack the Knife” that’s quite likeable but not an egregious omission. It won’t be hard to be satisfied that one is getting exactly what was offered in early 1960.

Although it’s readily apparent that hardly anybody can play jazz as well as this bunch, this is not a showy record. Dorham is more concerned with successfully communicating the intricacies of feeling, a less attention-grabbing pursuit that surely pertains to his being underrated. Dorham was just too classy to demand people take notice of his abilities. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to choose his best album, though Quiet Kenny is secure in its position near the top.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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