Jazz, like any other art form, is a many-leveled thing. You can easily compile the A-list: Miles, 'Trane, Monk, Mingus, Bird, etc., and probably a B-list while you're at it. The four men whose discs comprise the first releases from Joel Dorn's new Hyena Records are decidedly B-list, if not C-list. Jazzbos know the names; probably even own a few of their records. But they aren't the headliners.
Eddie Harris, one of the four, sums it up best after a live run through of "Cherokee": "Those of you who'd like to know who I am, ask the person seated next to you',' he says, waiting a beat for the inevitable laughs. "Many times the person sitting next to you don't know who I am either. Just keep asking, somebody might know".
It seems to have been Dorn's life's work to make sure people do know, not just Harris but Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Cannonball Adderley, Les McCann and others. Vital music from all four is back on the racks thanks to Dorn's Hyena Records.
These discs are valuable for a couple of reasons. First, they bring back into print discs first-issued on Dorn's short-lived Night Music label in 1991. Night was followed by M Records and 32 Records, two labels that allowed Dorn to mine the vaults of these and other artists for under-issued gems. With Hyena, his fourth jazz label, Dorn looks to the past before moving into the future. The label's first four releases restore Night's small catalog. From here, he plans to issue more work, continuing a life devoted to jazz that started as a staff producer at Atlantic Records.
Let's hope his excavations live up the standard set by these four discs, because the other reason these are valuable is for what they capture. All contain private recordings made by the artists. These were never supposed to be released commercially. That doesn't mean they aren't up to snuff -- though there is a bit more crowd noise in spots than you'd expect on a sanctioned release -- but simply that they capture a band playing an average night in front of an average crowd. As such, these discs show jazz as it lives and breathes.
"These records were meant to be the soundtracks to documentaries that didn't exist", Dorn says in accompanying notes. "They're the audio equivalent of auteur filmmaking".
Each disc offers something special. Harris's might be the most revelatory. On A Tale of Two Cities, he displays a sweet tone and a swinging style on his saxophone that seem effortless. Harris had hits, including "Listen Here" included here, and his duet with McCann on "Compared to What" (found on McCann's disc without Harris). But his stature is not commensurate with his talent. As these live cuts recorded in 1978 and 1983 prove, Harris should be known for more than a couple of pop hits and his pioneering use of the electric saxophone. On cuts like "Chicago Serenade" and "Illusionary Dreams", he proves himself to be an endlessly inventive improviser who always kept the focus on the melody.
Cannonball Adderley is another supremely talented saxophonist, one who got more of his due than Harris. His open, vibrant sound fueled many popular jazz standards, and contributed to the groups of Miles Davis in particular. On Radio Nights, Adderley plays a stinging set of tunes with stellar backing during 1967 and 1968. He is joined by the likes of Sam Jones, Joe Zawinul, Louis Hayes, Charles Lloyd and his brother, Nat, throughout. His hard-swinging, hard bop comes across powerfully in these live club recordings. At the same time, he shows true grace when massaging a subtle melody like lyrical playing on the standard "Stars Fell on Alabama". Adderley, as much as any of these four, was a consummate entertainer. His stage patter is captured on "Cannonball Monologues", a recording from a club date on which Cannonball explains the tunes "Oh Babe" and "Country Preacher", the latter with a tribute to their pastor, Jesse Jackson.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk is also better known than Harris, though more for the fact that his was blind or could play three horns at once than for his talents as a composer and performer. The Man Who Cried Fire has all of what one expects and more. Kirk plays a wide variety of instruments, dazzles an audience with his three-horn attack on the blistering "Multi-Horn Variations", and takes on Miles Davis ("Bye Bye Blackbird") and John Coltrane ("Mr. P.C.") with aplomb. He even shows a bit of wit with a dead-on impersonation of Davis's rasp on his intro to "Bye Bye Blackbird". Like the other discs, this offers performances of songs first cut in the studio that show far more creativity and energy than their studio-bound brethren. Kirk's "You Did It, You Did It" finds the multi-instrumentalist singing while playing the flute in what must surely be one of the oddest self-duets in recorded jazz (a list that likely includes several entries for Kirk). If Harris's disc is the find of this set, Kirk's comes a close second, offering, in one disc, perhaps the best summation of his eclectic career.
Last up is McCann, who may have the most interesting disc of the four. The pianist offers selections from his extensive collection of tapes, with trio performances ("Maleah", "With These Hands"), tunes with Harris ("Samia") and reinterpretations of classic hits ("Compared to What"). But the oddest and most satisfying parts of this disc are the tracks that don't even include McCann. McCann is credited with discovering singer Roberta Flack, and a recording of her singing "All the Way" at a club in Washington D.C. is included here. McCann also recorded performances by contemporaries like Stanley Turrentine, Cannonball Adderley, and Carmen McCrae. On "Les by Night", the pianist offers a montage of live tracks recorded by these performers in clubs. He rounds it out with spirited performances with a variety of lineups and an extended joke on "Bird Story". More than the other discs, this truly lives up to Dorn's statement that these are like documentary films.
Dorn, like the musicians he champions, is a character. He claims the name Hyena comes from the fact that his folks were wildlife photographers who found a hyena pup on a shoot and brought it home for him as a pet. Whatever the story, it's a welcome addition to his stable. He uses that wit and irreverence well on the liner notes that accompany each disc. It is clear that Dorn knew and loved these musicians, and his notes tell about them as people, as friends; this is no huckster jive bent on selling records. The notes for the Harris disc, for example, cite the wisdom of Dorn and McCann -- who declare Harris to be "one of the baddest motherfuckers who ever played a saxophone" -- to deem whatever day you read the notes to be "Eddie Harris Day," while the notes for the Kirk disc find Dorn wishing to enroll in creative writing classes so that he might more adequately sum up the musician's talent.
He cares about this music, and it is music worth the effort. None of these discs is the definitive place to start for any of these four, but for anyone looking to complete the puzzle when trying to figure out Harris, McCann, Kirk or Adderley, you couldn't find a better piece.