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What’s on Your Playlist – Noah Haidu?

Christian Wissmuller • January/February 2021What's on Your Playlist? • February 9, 2021

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Pianist Noah Haidu has etched out an uncompromising identity as a pianist and composer by balancing cutting-edge songwriting with stirring improvisations. At age 19 Haidu had studied at Rutgers University for about a year with the great pianist Kenny Barron. After his second year, Haidu left college and moved to Brooklyn to devote all his time to practicing and gigging with artists such as Essiet Essiet, Duane Eubanks, Walter Perkins, Melvin Sparks, Jeanie Bryson, and Norman Connors. He has collaborated with Ambrose Akinmusire, Mike Stern, Buster Williams, Jeremy Pelt, Sharel Cassity, and Mark Whitfield Jr. Giovanni Russonello of the New York Times called him, “an artist of focus and vision.” That vision, along with his passion for the music of the late Kenny Kirkland, come to focus on his striking multimedia release Doctone, recently released on Sunnyside. The project features an album, film and book for which he’s interviewed artists including Sting and Jason Moran.

1. Miroslav Vitouš – First Meeting

By my count Kirkland was still 23 years old when he recorded First Meeting with Miroslav Vitouš, John Surman, and Jon Christensen for the ECM label. It was one of his first recordings and although he was a generation younger than the legendary bassist, Miroslav Vitouš clearly heard something special in Kenny. When we think of Kenny Kirkland we often imagine ferocious swing and harmonic burnout, but Kenny had a great affinity for Keith Jarrett. According to a couple of his friends he had aspired to debut as a leader for ECM early on in his career. On this album he is perfectly in tune with Vitouš’ group concept, providing airy textures and expressive free counterpoint. It’s mostly unrecognizable as later Kenny, but it’s just a testament to his versatile genius that he sounds as masterful in this context as he does with Wynton or Sting.

2. Elvin Jones – Brother John

Three years later Kenny joined the legendary Elvin Jones’ band for a couple of record dates. Brother John features the rhythm section of Kenny along with Reggie Workman and Elvin, both veterans of John Coltrane’s classic quartet. Pat LaBarbera on saxophones digs into the language of the titular tenor/soprano jazz prophet which makes perfect sense for this session. But when Kirkland gets a solo he sounds a lot more like himself than anyone else. I’ve studied in some detail both McCoy Tyner (Coltrane’s pianist) and Kenny Kirkland and, in spite of the opportunity to play in Tyner’s language, it’s definitely Kenny’s voice that shines through here. The compositions are primarily blowing vehicles and Kenny plays clear and bold with Elvin whom he revered. It’s significant to me that the two archetypes of 1960s jazz drumming, Tony Williams and Elvin, had associations with Kirkland in his early years. With all of his experimentation, Kenny was very much committed to groove and swing. I think it’s that juxtaposition that I love most about him. And he paid his dues playing with the masters before getting wider notoriety.

4. Billy Hart – Oshumare

Before he was the first-call pianist for the “Young Lions” movement of the early 1980s, Kenny was making all kinds of mischief in various bands in the late ‘70s in the form of fusion (with Michal Urbaniak) “avant-garde” (Miroslav Vituoš and John Surman), and R&B (with Angela Bofill). Hart’s 1983 date, Oshumare, distills those various elements into one extremely forward-thinking and inventive album. Billy told me that while the band was getting lunch at the session Kenny wrote out his tune “Chance” as a last minute addition. This was eight years before he recorded as a leader, but clearly Kenny was already formulating his distinctive approach to mixing impressionistic harmonies with electronic textures. The way the electric guitar and saxophone blend in the front line on this date reminds me of the sound Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner made so popular a decade later.

4. Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes from the Underground

With all the fuss made over the young lions movement in the 1980s, it’s possible to overlook the fact that Jeff “Tain” Watts, Charnett Moffett, Kenny Kirkland, Branford Marsalis, and Wynton Marsalis were making incredible music together. On Black Codes they take the post-Miles/post-Coltrane legacies to the next level. This was the best album by the best quintet of players to emerge in the 1980s. According to drummer Jeff Watts, Wynton asked Kenny to write a tune the session and a day later they were recording Kenny’s “Chambers of Tain,” which became a template for modal uptempo burnout on subsequent dates in this genre. The soloists, ensemble work, and writing are so masterful on this album, I often wonder what might have happened if two members hadn’t left the band this same year.

5. Sting – The Dream of the Blue Turtles

Speaking of which, after making Black Codes, Kenny and Branford left Wynton’s band to join Sting’s band for his first solo recording and tours. Sting had become a household name with the hugely popular rock trio The Police. Collaborating with a bunch of jazz musicians didn’t seem like a commercially viable idea for a pop icon, but it worked because the ensemble for The Dream of the Blue Turtles was an exciting and engaging band and they played that gig without ego while supporting Sting’s vision effortlessly. The core group was drummer Omar Hakim, bassist Darryl Jones, plus Kenny and Branford – all virtuosic jazz players who had also grown up playing music they heard on the radio. Significantly, the title track is a short instrumental jazz piece featuring a wild and amazing solo from Kenny with no vocals and no other solos. Kenny’s and Branford’s work on this date turned my attention from pop music to jazz piano when I was an aspiring teenage rock snob.

6. Branford Marsalis – Renaissance

After Wynton Marsalis’s precise arrangements and Sting’s “stadium-ready unit” with all of its electric bells and whistles, Renaissance sounds sounds like a stripped-down return to the essentials: an all-acoustic quartet stretching out on a program of standards and a few originals, including two pieces by the drummer for the date: the great Tony Willams. Bassist Robert Hurst joins Kenny and Branford. To my ear Williams pushes the quartet slightly out of its comfort zone, while simultaneously bringing out the intrinsic beauty of the repertoire. Kenny’s moving intro on J.J. Johnson’s “Lament” is a brief, but brilliant statement that shows his profound understanding of 20th century classical music and how that language can flow effortlessly into a jazz standard in the right hands. His solo on that tune might be my personal favorite in all of his recordings. The fast and furious version of Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” sounds like it’s always on the edge of falling off a cliff with Williams and Kirkland constantly stirring the pot while Marsalis wails out front. Branford references everything from Ben Webster to Sonny Rollins to Wayne Shorter, and wherever he goes the band follows without ever sounding predictable.

7. Kenny Kirkland – Kenny Kirkland

This is unquestionably my favorite album of the 1990s. It’s still hard to believe that Kenny Kirkland only recorded one leader date. So many artists continually reinvent themselves in the recording studio every year or two, chasing the mantle of “innovation.” Conversely, Kenny packed a lifetime of projects into one album. Listen to these 11 tracks and you will find yourself immersed in what he did and what he could have done with more time: the through-composed album, the electric album, the acoustic blowing album, the trio date, the Afro-Cuban project, the joyful swing, the album covering his favorite composers, and so on. Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Bud Powell’s music are all treated to deeply personal interpretations by Kirkland. I know of no one else who has so successfully navigated this varied terrain while maintaining such a clear and personal approach throughout – and somehow it’s all on one album. But ultimately all hyperbole doesn’t matter because this album is simply a masterpiece. Three decades after it was completed there’s still never been anything like it. Kenny apparently had to be coaxed into doing this album by his friends who persevered in spite of the fact that Kenny occasionally wouldn’t show up to his own recording sessions.

8. Jeff Tain Watts – MegaWatts

This is the major trio album in the Kirkland canon. It features Kenny with Jeff “Tain” Watts and Charles Fambrough: the original rhythm section from Wynton’s first working quintet. The music is fairly simple compared to the Marsalis repertoire, but it’s all about what they do with these basic elements: standards, blues, a few originals, and a Keith Jarrett waltz. Kenny was known for his love of Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio and though it doesn’t sound like a Jarrett date it has a similar ethos: simple tunes become masterpieces on the strength of a trio’s internal dynamics. Kenny was so adept at accompanying and so in demand that he rarely played trio and it’s a pity because you see him in all his glory in this context. After a brief initial release by Sunnyside Records under the name Jazz From Keystone (overseen by the owner of Keystone Korner Jazz Club Todd Barkan and Sunnyside producer Francois Zalaican) this was out of print for some years and then re-released as MegaWatts in 2004 on Sunnyside Records. Before that, all of the up and coming young pianists like me just whispered about this legendary session and passed it around, bootleg style.

9. Kenny Garret – Songbook

Released just one year before we lost Kenny, this is how many of his fans remember him… with intense swing, harmonic daring, technical brilliance, and everything soaked in blues, funk, and gospel. What a great combination. This album is utterly devoid of pretension – with song titles that reference Coltrane and Hubbard it wears its heart on its sleeve. Kenny Garrett, Jeff Watts, Nat Reeves, and Kirkland are profoundly in sync and the live bootlegs I have of this band show that they drove audiences to a frenzy and might have had an even greater impact if they’d had more time.

10. Branford Marsalis – Requiem

A gorgeous collection of mostly rhapsodic ballads and rubato excursions filled with melancholy as if Eric Revis, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Branford Marsalis, and Kenny Kirkland somehow knew they wouldn’t all play together again. By contrast the title track is a joyful hard-bop anthem which Branford wrote for Kenny: Doctone was Kenny’s nickname. And Bulworth brings to light the “ever-so-funkiness” that lurked underneath the surface of this innovative collaboration which stretched back 18 years for Kirkland, Watts, and Marsalis. It was apparently Kenny that brought Keith Jarret’s “Trieste” to the session. This would be his final recording date. After an initial session the band took a break and Kenny never came back, passing away tragically alone in his apartment at age 43, shocking the jazz world and abruptly ending the prolific output of this giant.

Noah Haidu’s latest, the multimedia project, Doctone (Sunnyside Records, 10/2/20), explores and celebrates the work of Kenny Kirkland

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