I first became aware of pianist Kenny Cox‘s music last year, when I was sent the CD Snuck In, by David Weiss and Point of Departure. (I reviewed that album in May, and you can read a pretty in-depth profile of Weiss, by Clifford Allen, in Burning Ambulance #3. Check it out, won’t you?) In addition to versions of Andrew Hill‘s “Erato,” from Pax, and Miles Davis‘s “Black Comedy,” from Miles in the Sky, the Point of Departure band included two pieces from the Contemporary Jazz Quintet‘s relatively skimpy catalog—”Number Four” and “Snuck In,” both by trumpeter Charles Moore—on the CD. The music all fit together, modeling a particular aesthetic: late ’60s hard bop plus groove plus semi-free experimentation. I loved the Weiss album, and since I was already familiar with the originals of the Hill and Davis pieces, I knew eventually I’d have to check out Kenny Cox.
I’m really glad I did. A CD released in 2007, combines both of this Detroit-based band’s two Blue Note albums, 1969’s Introducing… and 1970’s Multidirection, into 79 minutes of prime, adventurous hard bop. The group rockets out of the gate, kicking things off with the hard-swinging “Mystique.” This is followed by the ballad “You,” which sounds like a cut from Miles Davis‘s Nefertiti in the way the melody is declared periodically like a soft fanfare, but never really referred to in the instrumentalists’ solos. Most of the band members—Cox and bassist Ron Brooks are the two big exceptions—sound massively indebted to the 1965-68 Miles Davis Quintet for much of this album. There are passages where saxophonist Leon Henderson is straight-up stealing from Wayne Shorter (and, to a lesser degree, his own older brother, Joe Henderson), and drummer Danny Spencer—the white guy on the album cover—is a major Tony Williams disciple. Trumpeter Moore doesn’t play with a mute often enough to really sound like a Miles wannabe, but his interactions with Henderson have some of the same tension Davis and Shorter had.
The music here isn’t all abstract post-bop, though. “Trance Dance” is a thick, funky exercise in hard groove, and album closer “Diahnn” is a lovely ballad. But “Eclipse” and “Number Four” are so unfettered, they sound like the 1965 recordings of Miles and company from the Plugged Nickel, most of which wouldn’t be released for decades.
The group’s second and final album, Multidirection, was recorded 11 months after the debut, with no changes in personnel, and it doesn’t represent a major stylistic shift; if anything, their Davis homages have grown even more blatant, particularly Moore’s solo on the opening “Spellbound” and the way Spencer attacks the cymbals and hi-hat behind him. Henderson has become a slightly more subtle player on the second date, his lines murmured and occasionally bitten off, as though he doesn’t quite want to reveal too much of himself through his playing. He’s as fast as Shorter, though, and knows how to set up tension and release it with quick, staccato bursts of notes followed by long ribbons of sound. Cox sets up a powerful piano-led groove on “Sojourn,” around which the horn players blow sensitive, attuned phrases and Spencer keeps the rhythm rock-steady even as he chops out variations. Cox’s solo is beautiful but never florid. Unlike Introducing…, Multidirection features no ballads, only six mid- to uptempo workouts, the longest—the title track—nearly hitting the 10-minute mark.
It can seem like this band didn’t get a fair shake from history, that they should have been bigger stars on the Blue Note roster, up there with players like Andrew Hill, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock et al. But they had several strikes against them. For one, they were a unified band, not part of the pool of players who all appeared on each others’ releases between roughly 1963 and 1969 (the group I refer to as the “Class of ’64″—Sam Rivers, Bobby Hutcherson, Grachan Moncur III and a few others—are particularly known for this). For another, and this is related to the first, they were from Detroit, not New York or Chicago. And finally, they were somewhat behind the times. If these albums had come out in 1964 and 1965, or even ’65 and ’66, the band would have been regarded as part of a wave of musicians sweeping hard bop forward. But in 1968 and 1969, when they actually recorded, the new thing (aside from the New Thing—Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, Pharoah Sanders et al.) was the importation of electric instruments and rock rhythms—adventurous hard bop was yesterday’s music. Still, in 2011, this music sounds great and is well worth revisiting.