Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hard Driving Jazz: Backseat Driving

"I said 'Coltrane okay, but I want to use all the musicians that I want.' I wanted to use Ted Curson, who's a much more contemporary trumpet player than the trumpet player I ended up with, Kenny Dorham."

Coltrane okay? That's quite a ringing endorsement there, Cecil.

Stereo Drive, aka Hard Driving Jazz, aka Coltrane Time, is an album of a few aliases and a couple leaders - or so we've been led to believe. Nowadays it is easiest acquired as a Blue Note release under Coltrane's name but upon its inital pressing in 1959 this was a Cecil Taylor session and album (the above cover credits the tenor sax to one "Blue Trane"). My own copy, released by the Spanish label Gambit Records, credits it as "Cecil Taylor with John Coltrane", a rather nice compromise to be sure but the bonus six bonus cuts are all from Jazz Advance, Taylor's breakthrough release from two years previous - a sign, if any were otherwise needed, that Taylor was the man in charge. If I were to guess I'd say that Coltrane's co-credit is shore up some interest from casual buyers - and, indeed, that was my primary motivation for investment.

Given that he was using an admittedly feeble alias - I imagine in order to appear on a rival record label's release, much like "Charlie Chan" on Jazz at Massey Hall - and the fact that his name appears in smaller print than even the supposedly unwanted Kenny Dorham, there's no way that the optics of the time could persuade you to believe that this is a Coltrane session with Taylor guesting. But what about if you pick up a copy of Coltrane Time, how would having his name as part of the title and his picture on the cover affect one's perception? Well, given that he is the first soloist on opener 'Shifting Down' - notably a Dorham composition, curious that Taylor would use a number by a musician that he didn't want to be there in the first place to commence the album - is Coltrane then you could be forgiven for making this assumption. The lack of lengthy, ponderous tenor solos must be seen in the context of albums from his pre-Atlantic period and the fact that he had also been playing second fiddle to both Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk: Taylor and Dorham are hardly Jimmy Garrison or Reggie Workman, there to serve every need and desire of the guru on tenor sax.

So, could this album have been called something like Kenny Dorham in the Driver's Seat, with the trumpeter being credited as leader? I don't see why not. Miles Davis once complained that Thelonious Monk would never lay out during his solos and the Dorham-Taylor relationship is reminiscent of this dysfunctional dynamic - but the pianist seemed just as willing to go on playing what he liked while Coltrane took the lead as well. Reviews suggest that Dorham disliked Taylor's playing just as much as Taylor disliked his and indicate a certain tension to the recordings as a result but I don't hear it. Certainly their styles often clash and I'm sure their personalities also failed to mesh but since when did collaborators have to be best friends and musical bosom buddies?

Perhaps failing to live up to the vision Taylor had initially in mind, Hard Driving Jazz works rather well precisely because of the contrast of styles and antagonism - and this is only reinforced by the bonus tracks. Whereas Cecil Taylor left in charge of a more sympathetic group of musicians often sounds impressive but aimless, this makes it obvious that his unique talent lends itself much better alongside individuals with whom he disagreed. And so too does Coltrane. And, dare I say, so too does Dorham.

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