Robin Kenyatta

Stompin' at the Savoy

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Alto saxophonist and composer Robin Kenyatta made a slew of records in the 1970s that have been terribly misunderstood, to say the least. It was obvious by the time that Kenyatta released Terra Nova in 1973 that he was revisioning jazz as the perfect integration point for many -- if not all -- forms of popular music; Terra Nova had explored Caribbean rhythms (in particular reggae and calypso). But on his 1974 album Stompin' at the Savoy, Kenyatta took the revered jazz tradition and inserted it right into the heart of then contemporary styles of funk, soul, and pop, and even early club disco. Produced by Michael Cuscuna for Atlantic Records, there is a dazzling array of musicians present here in various groupings: Billy Harper, Dr. John, Ron Carter, Chuck Rainey, Lew Soloff, Alphonse Mouzon, Ralph MacDonald, Jimmy Knepper, Bernard Purdie, Sonelius Smith, Larry Willis, Walter Booker, Lewis Worrell, and more. The title cut is radically rearranged to include a female backing chorus doing a stepped up version of the Andrews Sisters-LaBelle style -- percussionists, a four-piece horn section, electric bass, Rhodes piano -- that walks the line between breezy funk and disco. It may sound like a mess but it works beautifully. This preps the listener for Arnett Cobb's Texas R&B nugget "Smooth Sailing," that sticks closer to the vest but is still ruled by a fingerpopping stroll of an electric bassline, electric guitars, and congas. The feel is entirely natural and the groove is easy. But juxtapose this with pianist Smith (known better to the jazz vanguard than the mainstream) whose beautifully mysterious "The Need to Smile," is a ten-minute jam where Willis' Rhodes, Smith's acoustic piano, and Kenyatta on soprano introduce a ballad as they slip and glide over Carter's upright bass, Guilherme Franco's percussion, and Mouzon's skittering drums for half the tune until it opens up into a full-on exploratory post-bop tune. Smith also lent his brief but beautiful "Mellow in the Park," to this set with fine flute work by Kenyatta. The real shockers, however, are wonderfully empathic readings of two pop hits of the day: a faux-reggae version of "Neither One of Us," (right, the Jim Weatherly number that scored big for Gladys Knight), and a downright freaky read of the Dickey Betts-penned Allman Brothers hit "Jessica," with an Afro-Cuban montuno rhythm played by Dwight Brewster's Rhodes piano against Rainey's funked up bassline and Winston Grennan's breakbeats. The set closes with a reggae read of Allen Toussaint's "River Boat," in place of the New Orleans second line rhythm -- even though it is evoked here by MacDonald. In 2008 -- the year this date finally appeared on CD -- with all the innovations brought to popular music, and yes, jazz too, by culture jamming and breakbeat science, this set feels right on time.

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