08/25/08

Keep a Light in the Window: An Homage to Joel Dorn

At some point during the free Lincoln Center Out of Doors tribute concert to the late jazz and R&B record producer Joel Dorn, his son Adam surveyed the audience. “How many of you knew my dad?” he asked. It seemed as if a third of the estimated 5,000 people in attendance raised their hands, a tribute within a tribute.

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Joel Dorn

Joel Dorn, who died last December at age 65, was that kind of guy: outgoing, affable, a schmoozer of the highest order. He did seemingly know everyone and, in a business custom-built for hustlers, cretins and creeps, Dorn went in the other direction: few of his peers in the music biz were as well liked by so many. And, apparently, he kept in touch with all of them—Adam Dorn counted eight participants at this show alone who mentioned during their stage time that they spoke with him daily.

Joel Dorn did his most memorable work for Atlantic Records during the ’70s, a peak time at the label for R&B and jazz. He helped propel Roberta Flack to stardom, producing her two consecutive Record of the Year Grammy-winners, “The First Time Ever I saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” In a video projected above the stage late in the program, Dorn was seen explaining to an interviewer that a waitress suggested to him how he could edit the lengthy recording of “First Time” down so it would work as a single. Dorn followed her advice and the ballad went on to sell millions. (The interview video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-u729cbaNxE.)

It was appropriate, then, that Flack, following Adam (in his alter-ego guise of Mocean Worker) to the stage, still in fine voice, set the tone for the evening with a stellar performance of that song. From there, a steady stream of performers and speakers pieced together a portrait that let the other two-thirds of the audience feel that they too knew Joel Dorn.

Mose Allison, contributing “Feel So Good,” recalled meeting Dorn some 50 years ago when Dorn was a teenaged jazz disc jockey in Philadelphia. Even then, Allison said, Dorn knew the music inside out, and lived for it. Dorn was always on the lookout for new talent, too, and Leslie Mendelson, a smooth pop/jazz singer who was the last artist Dorn produced, gave every indication here with her ballad treatment of the old Ronettes hit “Be My Baby” that she has the goods to join the ranks of Dorn’s other clients.

Produced and MC’d by Adam Dorn and tribute-album maven Hal Willner, the show of course could feature only a tiny sampling of the artists with whom Dorn worked at Atlantic, a list that included Rahsaan Roland Kirk (whose widow Dorthaan was one of five speakers volunteering their Joel stories), Yusef Lateef, Charles Mingus, Sonny Stitt, Herbie Mann and David “Fathead” Newman. Another, Les McCann, closed out the concert with his 1969 classic “Compared to What.”

But some artists, Adam said, contacted him to inquire if they might be able to jump in. Among those was Black Heat, a funk band that placed a sole single on the R&B chart, 1973’s Dorn-produced “No Time to Burn,” and then promptly split up. Having not played together in some 35 years, the original members reunited to perform the song here, turning up the heat during an extended jam that counted as one of the evening’s bright spots.

The diversity of Dorn’s résumé became self-evident as the evening progressed. Singer Jane Monheit and guitarist Frank Vignola managed somehow to give a new twist to “Over the Rainbow” by injecting it with lyrical improvisation and, later on, Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel, whose debut solo album was produced by Dorn, also teamed with Vignola, on a pristine “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Two unannounced additions to the program, the a cappella Persuasions (a flawless take on the Moonglows’ doo-wop ballad “Ten Commandments of Love”) and Hugh Masekela (a brief trumpet solo, title unmentioned), were as far apart as could be stylistically but both exuded the purity of sound that Dorn adored. And the trio Jacob Fred Odyssey, who recorded for Hyena Records, a label started by Dorn in his last years, was surely the most experimental act on the show, their medley of “The Black & Crazy Blues” and “A Laugh for Rory” tilting not only toward rock but country without ever leaving the realm of contemporary jazz.

Dorn held a special place for the music of New Orleans (who doesn’t?) and the back-to-back appearances of Wardell Quezerque and Dr. John, the latter doubling up with guitarist Cornell Dupree, was the perfect capper. Quezerque had worked with Dorn as the arranger of Aaron Neville’s exquisite remake of Nat “King” Cole’s “Nature Boy,” and as Neville was unavailable for the tribute, Quezerque chose to conduct the recorded version. If anyone in the venue found it bizarre to watch a conductor conducting a recording, they didn’t say so—the piece received some of the most enthusiastic applause of the night.

But the reception for Dr. John exceeded even that. Pronouncing the producer’s name Jo-EL, the erstwhile Mac Rebennack preceded his first tune by explaining that it was one that Dorn had persuaded him to record. Dr. John never wanted to play the song live, he said, but in Dorn’s memory, he would: “April Showers” never sounded as soulful as it did this night. With Dupree, Junior Parker’s “Next Time You See Me” kicked things up a notch before McCann, with Adam Dorn/Mocean Worker sitting in, closed things down.

Of the five speakers—Dorthaan Kirk, Hyena publicist Kevin Calabro (who’d previously worked at Dorn’s 32 Records reissues imprint), fellow producer Stewart Levine and Willner—it was Michael Dorn, another of Joel’s sons, who perhaps best summed up the kind of person Joel Dorn was. Joel, said Michael (who avoided the music business and sells furniture) never quite grew up—in a good way. “I passed him by at 12,” said Michael, who spoke of his dad’s love for the Three Stooges and TV evangelists. One time, said Michael, he announced to his dad that he was going out to buy a Kiss album. Threatening to break it if he brought it home, Joel instead plied the kid with vintage records by Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, et al. Michael was instructed to stay in his room and listen. He did, and he emerged musically enlightened. It goes without saying that the 5,000 at Lincoln Center, at one time or another, shared that feeling after hearing music produced by Joel Dorn.

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