Kenny Dorham

Impex IMP6042/United Artists 150067

180g LP or Hybrid SACD

By Dennis Davis

This is one of those albums that flew so far below the radar at the time of its release that after decades of searching jazz bins at record stores across the globe, I have yet to see an original. And let’s face it, that cover art is hard to miss. United Artists Records produced dozens of jazz albums beginning around 1960, featuring top artists, including this 1962 release. They reissued the LP in 1972 with cheesy cover art substituted for the original. The 1972 reissue turns up occasionally, and there has also been the odd reissue on Japanese labels, but all versions remain elusive. That is hard to digest, as the LP features both a world-class line up and outstanding performances.

On April 15, 1962, Dorham went into the Sound Masters Studio in New York with recording engineer Bill Schwartau and laid down eight tracks in a single day. Jackie McLean (playing Alto) joined him on the front line, with Bobby Timmons (piano), Teddy Smith (bass) and J.C. Moses (drums). Side one is taken up with two compositions from band members. Dorham’s ‘El Matador’and McLean’s ‘Melanie’. Both feature an intensely driven rhythm and some of the best solo work by Dorham, McLean, and Bobby Timmons to be found anywhere. The four cuts on side two are all covers, mostly popular songs from the 1930s, the kind of thing that Miles Davis’ Prestige albums were filled with. It opens with Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ from the movie Modern Times and the song selection maintains that cool, sophisticated tone throughout the side. There is nothing here to scare off jazz newbies, with McLean bringing his softer side to the session. But while side two makes for an entirely satisfying listen, side one is a truly remarkable achievement. It is hard to think of another McLean album that is more enjoyable, and it is among Dorham’s best. If Timmons ever played better, I have yet to hear that record.

And then there is the cover. One of the things that Impex always brings to the table with its vinyl releases is cover work and detail that goes the extra mile, providing genuine added value. Among the treasures on my record shelf is their box set of Jennifer Warnes’ The Well. The box itself is constructed of a light, wooden case covered in very high-quality paper and finished on a level rarely seen. I take it off the shelf occasionally just to marvel at the look and feel of the packaging (I also love the music). Matadorcarries forward this attention to detail. Cunningham and Frank Guana are credited with the original cover design. Their distinctive graphics will be familiar to record collectors lucky enough to own an original of Eric Dolphy’s Conversation on FM 308. But the thing you notice immediately after the striking design, is the high-quality paper stock used for the cover. Hewing as close as possible to the original, the Impex team printed the cover on mat finish ‘ribbed’ paper stock.

Bill Schwartau is a highly regarded recording engineer, known among other things for mentoring Phil Ramone. He recorded Money Jungle with Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, and Max Roach for United Artists five months after this session at the same studio. The sound quality of that recording was problematic—somewhat muddy and disappointing until reissued in much better sound as a Tone Poet release. Schwartau also recorded many of the Bill Evan’s studio sessions for Riverside with decent rather than phenomenal sound. The sound quality of Matador is certainly as good as any other record coming out of that studio. It might well be the best. Not having an original for comparison, I will guess that not only was the original among Schwartau’s best efforts, but that Impex has improved on that original. Chris Bellman of Bernie Grundman’s mastering studio cut Matador from the original analog master tape and RTI pressed the all-analog LP on 180-gram vinyl. The limited edition of 5,000 is a large enough pressing that it should last long enough for all but the most slothful to pick it up at standard pricing. At the end of the year, I fully expect this to be on my list of top five vinyl releases.