Pianist Noah Haidu Nods to Kenny Kirkland with Multimedia Project Featuring Music, Book, and Film with ‘Doctone’ (ALBUM REVEW)

There are tribute albums and there are expansive tribute projects. Pianist Noah Haidu has created the latter with “Doctone,” a multimedia project which includes a recording of pianist Kenny Kirkland’s music, as well as an original book by Haidu and a film directed by Jeffrey Chuang. The late Kirkland was a fixture in the bands of 

Wynton and Branford Marsalis as well as Sting, Kenny Garrett, and many others. The documentary about Kirkland’s life and his contribution to music was released on what would have been Kirkland’s 65th birthday, September 28, 2020. The album itself features some widely recognized names in jazz as well as other formidable players. They are drummer Billy Hart, saxophonists Steve Wilson Gary Thomas and mainstay Jon Irabagon, bassist Todd Coolman, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick.

Haidu reaches a new level of self-expression while exploring the work of one of his major influences, the late Kenny Kirkland. As Noah writes in the liner notes: “Doctone is the first recording dedicated entirely to Kirkland’s original music. I view Kenny as the most unique composer and pianist of his generation. Because he died young and avoided the spotlight, his brilliant compositions have been overlooked for too long… Kenny bridged so many musical worlds: Blues, R&B, fusion, modern jazz, and 20th century classical. “Kenny Kirkland was the greatest talent to emerge in the 1980’s jazz renaissance on any instrument… He recorded and toured with the top artists in all of these idioms: Sting, Steven Stills, the Police, Angela Bofill, Fort Apache, Elvin Jones and Dizzy Gillespie. He is the common denominator on the great recordings by Branford Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, and Wynton Marsalis from the 80s and 90s. His singular voice was a deeply personal combination of blues, avant-garde, modern jazz, 20th century classical, swing, funk, and Afro-Latin music. His musical force was so compelling that each band in which he played has changed dramatically after he passed away.”

Haidu’s connection with Kirkland goes back to Noah’s youth when Kirkland turned pop music on its head playing jazz solos and keyboard grooves in Sting’s early “post-Police” tours. Over the years, Haidu has mined many of the raw musical elements which caught his ear in those early days. Regarding Kirkland’s influence, Noah says: “The greatest lesson I take from him is a certain ‘devil may care’ attitude to performance: once you have enough vocabulary and genres to draw on you just go for it and see where the inspiration leads.” 

 Haidu recorded Doctone at a point of peak creativity. His extended six-part suite Infinite Distances made Downbeat magazine’s “Best Albums of the Year” issue in 2018. In early 2019 Haidu toured with a new band featuring Hart and Coolman and the inception of this trio gave Haidu the opportunity to present a fresh repertoire centered around Kirkland’s original compositions. Hart had a strong connection with the music. Kenny had been on his first two recording dates as a leader and they had played together during the 1970s on various fusion, Afro-Latin, and avant-garde projects. By summer, the band decided to record nine of Kenny’s songs over a couple of days. The sessions were documented on video, and the musicians talked throughout their relationship to Kenny and his music. Hart recalled the origins of some of the pieces and shared that he was having an “emotional reaction” to recording the music. Steve Wilson talked about the inspiration he felt when first hearing Kirkland with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet in the early 1980s and how that band had inspired him and his contemporaries.

The album opens with a spontaneous yet lyrical free improvisation from Haidu and Hart, a reverential brief piece emblematic of Kirkland’s nickname, “The Doctor of Tone”. “Midnight Silence” offers a slow rendering of Kirkland’s dense yet gorgeous harmonies, sliding into new tempos and time signatures for Haidu’s solo and Wilson’s soprano excursions. The brooding theme “Blasphemy” follows. Unlike Kirkland’s concise original recordings these versions feature improvisations that build to wailing explorations as the band reaches peak after peak, this time with Irabagon’s freewheeling tenor.

Kirkland’s two most well-known pieces are also included. The sinewy melody of “Steepian Faith” is treated with a funky odd-metered counterpoint before finding its way back into the joyful groove suggested by the original. The haunting “Dienda” is initially given an extended “out of time” exploration by Haidu, Hart, and Coolman before introducing the pulse and finally ending in a gospel-tinged 3/4 chorus. Gary Thomas’s unique melodic tenor language and Haidu’s fiery soloing are heard on “Mr. J.C.” “Tonality of Atonement” is a multi-directional trio statement, inspired by Hart’s initial encounters with Kirkland on the 70’s avant-garde scene. “Chambers of Tain” features Wilson playing both alto and soprano while “Fuschia” features some of Kirkland’s most adventurous rhythmic ideas and the duel horns on Thomas (tenor) and Irabagon (soprano). “Chance,” rendered by the trio was first recorded by Kirkland and Hart on Hart’s 1984 album Oshumare and serves as the moody closer.

As an excerpt from the forthcoming book, here is Steve Wilson on playing with Kenny Kirkland,- “Well, it was challenging, but fun. I mean, his stuff is challenging, man. You can’t just walk in and read it down and go ‘oh yeah’- I mean, you gotta do some homework on Kenny’s music, and you chose some great material, and it made me, before coming to record [say] ‘Man, I better check this out’, because I hadn’t really listened to some of those tunes, or heard them, in a long time. And you don’t hear Kenny’s music every day. You know, not a lot of people play his music which is another reason I thought it was a great project, to make his music relevant in the present tense, and not just this legend that we heard about. Or ‘Oh yeah, that guy that played with Branford and Wynton years ago, and Sting’, you know. But so people can see the total musician that he was. His tunes, man, you gotta bring it.”

True to Kirkland’s music, Haidu’s tribute is wide-ranging, both fervent and vigorously expressive. Any time that Billy Hart and Steve Wilson join a unit, the listener can count on a high-quality session that inspires great performance from all. Each of the players here has ample opportunity to stretch out and express themselves. As mentioned Haidu, one of the brightest pianists on today’s scene, is riding high momentum and his reverential view of Kirkland naturally results in peak performance.



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