Kenny Cox, piano; Charles Moore, trumpet; Leon Henderson, tenor saxophone; Ron Brooks, bass; Danny Spencer, drums, recorded by Duke Pearson, re-recorded by Rudy Van Gelder.
For the benefit of any unfamiliar with the artists, interesting arrangement on the cover, horns to the fore, rhythm section to the back. Kenny Cox stands modestly behind left of tenor-toting Leon Henderson, and to his right, drummer Danny Spencer.
Confession time. I knew nothing of Kenny Cox or indeed the Detroit jazz scene before this. I’m not sure I even know where Detroit is. America? I had never heard of or seen this late-flowering Blue Note from the Liberty years before. Nor did I know Joe Henderson had a tenor-playing brother, Leon. That is a lot of don’t knows for a so-called “jazz collector”.
Coming from the late ’60s, the words “Contemporary Jazz Quintet”, raised a red flag. The label Modern Jazz is a broad and widely-understood description of Blue Note and related styles, loosely 1956-66. Along comes someone in 1968 calling themselves Contemporary Jazz. Is that a warning, a warning of something more sinister, more modern than modern, avant-guard, discordant, toothache music? Fortunately it turns out to be merely just a name, perhaps read differently in 1968 than it reads in 2019.
Artist Profile: Kenny Cox
Blue Note Records had already documented Cox’s biography/discography, which it seemed pointless to re-author, so it is copied (heavily abridged) here for reference.
“Detroit native Kenny Cox was born in 1940. He began playing music on trumpet, but switched to the piano, attending the Detroit Conservatory of Music/ Institute of Music Arts. After graduation he left for New York City, where he connected with Etta Jones and was her accompanist and music director until 1966. The spell in New York also allowed him opportunities to perform with the likes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jackie McLean, Kenny Dorham, and fellow Detroiters Kenny Burrell and Donald Byrd (who of course left Detroit to pursue their careers )
Cox developed as a modern jazz composer inspired by the music of the ’60s and the political and cultural landscape of Detroit. By 1967 he had written enough material to record two albums for the Blue Note label, forming the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. It was a breakthrough ensemble, in many ways paralleling the development of Miles Davis.
In the electronic-infused ’70s, CJQ changed with the times, adding second drummer, keyboards, and guitar, in what was dubbed an “infinite Q.”. Cox also formed the Strata co-operative, and with other musicians, produced a line of albums, publications, and performance opportunities. In the ’80s; Cox remained active but nationally obscure, playing in the metropolitan Detroit area, and appeared with his Guerilla Jam Band, performing at several Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festivals.
He was taken on as a professor at Wayne State and Michigan State Universities, and enjoyed a brief stint teaching in California. Back in Detroit, he led a trio, published a book of compositions, And Then I Wrote…The Music World of Kenn Cox, collaborating with former CJQ member Charles Moore’s band Eternal Wind (an unfortunate name, which prompted LJC to wince, Chronic Flatulence? )
In the spring of 2008, Cox was given a lifetime achievement award by the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association. He died of lung cancer at his home in Detroit at the end of 2008, age 68. ” ~ Michael G. Nastos (for Blue Note) abridged by LJC.
Personally I like Leon Henderson’s playing, not obviously Joe Henderson’s brother, and Charles Moore’s trumpet. Fresh voices and the quintet a more open structure than just “front line plus rhythm section”. The selection Diannh has a wonderfully open fluid ambience, drifting but purposeful, post-bop in its Miles Davis sense, hanging in mid-air.
More cheating again, All-Music offers a quick thumbnail sketch:
“…the Contemporary Jazz Quintet had a muscular and urban group sensibility all its own. This is fiery, expansive and cerebral post-bop of the highest order”
Dusty Groove says more:
An overlooked late 60s treasure on Blue Note – one of the few new groups to work on the label at the time, and an up-and-coming modern combo from Detroit!
The album’s quite unique for a number of reasons – not just because the group was a little-known new signing to the label, but also because the work is quite far-reaching at times – some of the most free-thinking jazz recorded for Blue Note during the time, with a sense of boldness that almost stretches back to Jackie McLean’s first few records of the new thing years, or a sense of lyrical invention that’s a bit like Wayne Shorter when he made a shift towards the outside.
Some numbers are awash in fast colors and changes, while others are a bit more in the pocket, with echoes of soul jazz – but the whole thing’s incredibly fresh and free, a wonderful little record that only gets better and better over the years!
Vinyl: Division of Liberty BST 84302 (1968)
A West Coast pressing, Bert-Co typesetting (“SIDE 1”), no Van Gelder, so re-mastered from copy tape by Research Craft, LA.
This recording looks to having a tortured history, indicative of the chaotic leadership of Blue Note as it passed through the hands of Liberty, and into the hands of financial conglomerate Transamerica Corporation. Recorded in Detroit, apparently by Duke Pearson – great pianist but who has no history as a sound engineer, then “re-recorded” by Van Gelder, presumably to try to sort out whatever Pearson had got. Then a copy tape of Van Gelder’s salvage operation was sent to LA for mastering and pressing locally on the West Coast.
The wave-forms during the Audacity rip are unusual to say the least, very blocky and condensed, without the usual articulation of fine detail in the histograms, not seen one like this before. It sounds better than it probably should, thanks to Rudy’s rescue attempts.
The logos clustered at the foot of the back cover tell a story, Entertainment from the Transamerica Corporation. Entertainment? It’s not entertainment, man, it’s something much more important – it’s music.
I picked this album up blind in a London store, little knowing I had stumbled into unknown territory, of The Detroit Modernists. The port of entry was still Blue Note, but post-bop of a changing sensibility. Blue Note of the late ’60s under Wolff and Pearson must have been struggling to find a commercially successful new direction for the label. Familiar names aside, most of the new artist Blue Note releases came from the soul-jazz-funk stable, heavily leaning towards Hammond Organ: Brother Jack McDuff, Reuben Wilson, Lonnie Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Richard Groove Holmes, Bobbi Humphrey, a musically unpromising direction from my perspective. Cox seems to have been a rare new signing offering continuity Blue Note jazz, but with some fresh voices.
Following Introducing Kenny Cox’s debut album, in 1969 Blue Note came up with a second release, BN 84339 “Multidirection“. Discogs lists a promo copy with the familiar West Coast Liberty United black/turquoise label:
This is one I have never seen. A rare Discogs review says of Multidirection:
“Great early contemporary LP with classic slow/odd start, fast pick-up, and wild, spaced out experimental finish that leaves the listener in a trance. If I didn’t know this was ’69/’70 Blue Note, I’d assume it was ’77-’79 ECM/Trio. A phenomenal piece! “
The resourceful Mr Cox started his own record label Strata Records in 1969 Detroit, Michigan, remarkably similar design to Strata East (pictured right) founded 1973 .
Starting life as a music-led community organisation, coffee shop, recording studio and live venue, Strata released only a few titles as a record label, gaining it a cult following among record collectors, jazz lovers, and hipster DJs specializing in obscure and hitherto undiscovered rare grooves.
“The modern-day musical archaeologist is always in search of that elusive piece of a musical puzzle. Dusting off a slice of unknown vinyl or a mystery tape in a battered box might just open up another chapter of discovery that illuminates the art of the people.”
Quote: DJ Amir, whose 180-Proof Records, founded in 2011, holds the rights to Strata recordings. This seems fertile Gilles Petersen territory, time to twist the baseball cap sideways. More on the story of Strata Records from the Vinyl Factory Archivist: ” Detroit’s underground jazz, funk and soul label Strata Records“, an interesting off-beat excursion.
Fascinating that there was almost a Strata West, now that could have been something, but it never happened. The Detroit Sound faltered, unable to achieve commercial self-sufficiency – Strata issued only six records in its six years – or alternative municipal community funding. The Blue Note label itself re-focused on its glittering heritage, the “re-issue machine” that was United Artists, and failed to find new jazz directions. Instead, it was left to independent spirits of the ’70s like Strata East to chart a new direction from Modern Jazz, in the shape of Spiritual Jazz. The rest of the music industry just mostly forgot about jazz altogether.
Fast-forward to 2015, Blue Note president Don Was, who happens to be from … Detroit, released Detroit Jazz City, tracks by Detroit jazz legends from the Blue Note vaults, alternating with new recordings that Was produced featuring many of the city’s current jazz elite. The new recordings were made in the lead up to the 2012 Concert of Colors where the artists were featured as part of the festival’s long-standing Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue.
The album, sadly, I think only CD, includes Joe Henderson, Donald Byrd and Kenny Cox: a vinyl issue is long overdue, as part of the full heritage of Blue Note.
For those of us less familiar with the geography of the United States, among which I include myself, I include as a footnote: Detroit.
If I have anything understood incorrectly, be sure to let me know, I’m in a strange land here, Detroit. I’ve only just begun to get the hang of New York… and some would say not even that…