Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Appreciating A Living Legend: The Bob Dorough Trio Live At The Deer Head Inn

If you include the rhythms Bob Dorough beat out on his highchair tray back in Cherry Hill, Arkansas as a toddler, the bebop jazz legend has been composing, arranging and performing music for an extraordinary 10 decades.   
That seems like an awfully long time until you consider that one of the things that makes jazz so special, which is to say so timelessly vibrant, is that its elders never stop playing or giving back, and the youngsters are eager to learn from them.   
Live at the Deer Head Inn is Bob's zillionth album and happened to be recorded on December 12, 2015, his 92nd birthday.  When he called me on New Years Day to make sure he had a correct mailing address so he could send me a copy since we had missed his 93rd birthday and CD release party (we were at the Blue Note in New York City for Chick Corea's birthday party; he's only 75), Bob described the evening as perhaps not being among his best performances. 
I beg to differ.   
Aralee Dorough, Steve Berger, Pat O'Leary and Bob
Bob is at his most laid back on Live at the Deer Head Inn, playing before a packed house of family and friends with the added bonus of his daughter, flautist Aralee Dorough, sitting in with Daddy-O, Steve Berger (sublime on guitar) and Pat O'Leary (ditto on bass) on several numbers.  The album is beautifully produced by Bill Goodwin and exquisitely recorded, mixed and mastered by Ken Heckman of Red Rocks Studios, with superb liner notes by jazz scholar Pat Dorian, parts of which I have unashamedly cribbed for this review.   
Aralee is a story in and of herself. 
She was only a few years out of her own highchair when Bob escaped Long Island City, a gritty New York City suburb, for a quaint village near Delaware Water Gap, which is even quainter although it does boast a traffic light.  The Gap is home to the Deer Head Inn, the oldest continuing in operation jazz club in the U.S. and a living embodiment of the notion of the older cats sharing their magic with the younguns, who mature into older cats themselves and in turn share with the latest up and comers.
The biggest reason for Bob's move was so Aralee could start first grade and grow up in a bucolic setting, and this altruistic act was to have unexpectedly wonderful consequences beyond her becoming a great musician in her own right and eventually principal flautist of the world renowned Houston Symphony.   
The Poconos at one time probably had more jazz clubs per capita than anyplace anywhere, a happy consequence of the area's resort industry and one man -- Bob Newman, who had played in Woody Herman's Thundering Herd big band before becoming music director at Mt. Airy Lodge, a gig he held down for most of the 1960s and 70s.   
Newman put together extraordinary house bands that would back the biggest stars of the era, many of whom would play Mt. Airy and other big resorts on a Saturday night and then appear on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City the next night.  Those were the days. 
A musician leaving Mt. Airy to return to New York had to drive by the Deer Head to get to the Portland Bridge and Route 46, the main drag between the Delaware River and the Lincoln Tunnel before Interstate 80 cleaved the heart out of the region, and they would stop in and jam until the cows came home with the immortal John Coates Jr. and other Deer Head regulars.  (It was at pianist Coates's knee that an up and comer by the name of Keith Jarrett cut his jazz teeth.) 
Dorough, who of course played in Newman's house band at Mt. Airy, was one of the first musicians to move to the area from New York, arriving in the early 1960s.   
The trickle was to turn into a flood that included tenor saxophonist Al Cohn, trombonist Urbie Green, piano-vocalist David Frishberg, bassist Steve Gilmore and Russ Savakus, woodwind artist George Young, keyboard player Wolfgang Knittel, and drummers Bud Nealy and Live at the Dead Head producer Bill Goodwin, who drummed for alto sax great Phil Woods, first lived in the attic of Dorough's house and eventually lured Woods to the Gap. 
Ray Noble's "The Touch of Your Lips" kicks off Live at the Deer Head, which concludes a scrumptious one hour and change later with Bob's signature song, his very own "Devil May Care," with a stopover somewhere in between for my fave of the evening, "Flamingo," a hit for Duke Ellington Orchestra vocalist Herb Jeffries on the eve of World War II, with Aralee blowing the socks off the house and Bob, Steve and Pat riffing over, under, around and through each other as if they had played together forever.  Which they sort of have. 
I used to write that Bob was the most famous jazz musician no one had ever hear of but you actually had heard if you or your kids grooved to School House Rock, the ABC Saturday morning teevee show that transfixed youngsters of all ages from 1973 to 1985.  Bob penned the lyrics and music and sang "My Hero, Zero," "Three Is a Magic Number," and many of that show's other gems, proving that the words educational and hit song could coexist in the same sentence.   
My beyond trite line about Bob not being known turns out to demonstrably false, a phrase that recently has reentered the lexicon for unfortunate reasons.  (Hint: Its mailing address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.)  You can't listen to a great jazz station for even a day without hearing "Devil May Care," if not sung by Bob himself, then covered by Diane Krall, Jamie Cullum or some cat on a trumpet.  Miles . . . Miles . . . Miles . . . Miles somebody or other.   
"Devil May Care" is an anthem to not giving a damn and I've never heard Bob do it the same way twice. This rendering is especially soulful, starts in the middle with the bridge and includes a second bridge that at first sounds like "Girl From Impaema."  But not quite.
Bob  has played and sung with Blossom Dearie, Ornette Coleman, Art Garfunkel, Chad Mitchell, Sam Most, Bill Takas, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Donald Fagan, Miles . . . Miles . . . Miles . . . Miles somebody or other and, of course, all the Poconos-based cats.   
He does not have a classically beautiful voice like Tony Bennett or Joe Williams (who along with Frank Sinatra share Bob's birthdate).   Indeed, his voice is something of an acquired taste, which led the estimable Will Friedwald to write in Jazz Singing (1990) that "Anyone who's ever taken a singing lesson resents the hell out of Bob Dorough for having the nerve to pass himself off as a vocalist."   
Oh, and by the way, I am still waiting for Bruce Springsteen to call and say he's mailing me his latest CD.
Photographs © Mitchell Kezin 

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