Fun news! SFM has a new intern, Jeremiah Briley. And Jeremiah happens to be something of an expert on Kenny Dorham. So without further ado, here’s Jeremiah’s take on a classic album–
It’s January 15: the 53rd anniversary of one of Kenny Dorham’s seminal recordings as leader, Whistle Stop. We pause to reflect on the sheer genius of Kenny and this album, composed entirely by leader KD himself. 1961 was the year and as Ira Gitler put it in the liner notes for the original release of the LP, “It seems that every time you read about Kenny Dorham, someone is referring to him as ‘a greatly underrated trumpeter.’ I’ve probably been guilty of this myself. I say guilty because if all the energy expended by Jazz writers and commentators in lamenting Kenny’s lack of proper recognition was turned toward a more positive extolling of his many virtues, perhaps he would be much further ahead in his career. Certainly, he is one of the very best trumpeters in Jazz.”
With that being said, let us turn a new leaf for Kenny and his music by expressing some uplifting thoughts on Whistle Stop. The album, recorded for Blue Note Records, brought together an all-star cast of musicians: Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums (all of which played on John Coltrane’s Blue Train from September 15, 1957 also on Blue Note). On top of that killer rhythm section was the incomporable tenorman Hank Mobley, whose musical relationship with KD stretches back all the way to the Horace Silver Quintet in 1954. Each member is a complement to the others in the band, giving the entire album its fiery, swinging, bluesy hard bop-ness.
The first tune on this romping album is “Philly Twist,” a fitting dedication to the drummer Philly Joe and in the Parkerian style. According to the original liner notes from the album, Gitler points out another meaning for the title where Kenny says, “There is also a play on words with filly, a young horse.” This adaptation of the word “Philly” by Kenny reverts back to his younger days in his hometown of Post Oak, Texas where he was a cowhand and had aspirations of becoming a cowboy. Philly Joe relentlessly drives the beat as KD and Hank Mobley take their solos. KD’s facility and clarity while playing at very fast tempos never cease to amaze me!
The next tune “Buffalo” is a drastic contrast to the first tune insofar as the tempo has slowed to a near dirge within the blues idiom. The horns voiced a fourth apart gives “Buffalo” a Middle Eastern flavor. Also, Kenny remarks in the liner notes in reference to the naming of this tune that, “the buffalo is a pretty earthy animal.” This earthiness is a direct correlation to the essence of the this deeply bluesy tune. This tune reminds me of Donald Byrd’s title track “Slow Drag.” Hank Mobley, KD, and Kenny Drew each take solos reinterpreting the blues in their own way which gives way for some interesting interplay of ideas.
Following “Buffalo,” the modal tune “Sunset” really encapsulates the imagery KD achieved through this piece. KD’s mute work drives this sentiment home creating the mood that is reminiscent of the approaching summer night in the southwest. Each band member incorporates a softer, more sensitive touch to their playing, be it playing the head, soloing or accompanying.
The title track, “Whistle Stop” is a definite barnburner set to “rhythm changes” which KD has a strong proficiency in due to the backbreaking tempo of the tune. Philly Joe is the undeniable force responsible in holding it all together throughout the tune even when, at times, the drums may sound like a cacophony of sound. In the the beginning and end of the tune Kenny reveals the way in which he created the locomotive sound by using “compound quarter notes or half note triplets— this can be also done with eighth note triplets.” Even the soloists may have caught the train at different times, they are all on the same train arriving at the same destination.
In “Sunrise in Mexico, ” the bass represents the ascending sun, as the front voices (trumpet and tenor saxophone), by contrast, are descending. Again, from the liner notes, Kenny says, “the skies are low down there, and everything looks different.” KD’s efforts has not gone awry in capturing the imagery for each of his compositions.
“Windmill,” a perfect supplement to the other Parkerian tune on the album (“Philly Twist”) , has each musician give their own interpretation of the “Windmill.” Specifically, KD and Hank Mobley speak candidly through their instruments about past romantic relationships that all of us can relate to while Kenny Drew tinkers away with “adroit single lines” and Chambers bows his story. Jones displays his impression of the windmill with his precise technique of circular motion. KD concludes the description of the tune by saying that “the windmill, a weathered, gray-wood affair, is represented in the last four bars of the track.”
The last track of the album, “Dorham’s Epitaph” is approximately a minute in length meant to be the everlasting link to his name after he has left this earth. KD adds, “Other trumpeters have had identifying songs— and memorials like I Remember Clifford.” According to the liner notes, Gitler says that KD was in the process of expanding “Dorham’s Epitaph” for 60 or 70 pieces (40 of which would have been strings). Interestingly, by the behest of Dorham’s wife, Rubina, the title was changed to “Fairy Tale.” Unfortunely, the finished may never be seen again due to the fact that, according to Don Sickler, Gunther Schuller was in possession of the only copy of the score and left it in a cab! What a loss! There is always hope for things like that to pop up out of the blue many, many years later.
Having done a brief survey of this album, it is interesting how KD uses the application of programmatic music, just as Ellington did in his long form works. The use of the music as a vehicle to tell a story or paint a picture from beginning to end is no small feat. Let us continue to bask in the genius of Kenny Dorham!