Noah Haidu remembers the first time that he really “got” fellow pianist Kenny Kirkland. Haidu, still in his teens at the time, was with his father at the New York City club Sweet Basil, where Kirkland was accompanying singer Carmen Lundy. “It was very much a pickup gig where Carmen had some tricky music and the whole band was sight-reading,” Haidu says. “[Drummer] Victor Lewis and Carmen’s brother Curtis [on bass] were also playing. I don’t like the term ‘dominated,’ but we said, ‘Who the hell is this piano player? God damn!’ I had heard him before, but the intensity of hearing it live, that was pretty important to me.”
Now, more than three decades later, Haidu has recorded a tribute to Kirkland, who died in 1998 at age 43. Doctone—the title comes from Kirkland’s nickname, short for Doctor of Tone—features Haidu on piano along with drummer Billy Hart and bassist Todd Coolman, plus three saxophonists (Steve Wilson, Gary Thomas, and Jon Irabagon) and percussionist Dan Sadownick adding coloration. All of the repertoire was composed by Kirkland save for the opening track, “The Doctor of Tone,” a free improvisation featuring only Haidu and Hart.
The tribute album follows Haidu’s previous leader titles Slipstream (2011), Momentum (2013), and Infinite Distances (2017). It wasn’t until Haidu, 48, formed a new trio with Hart and Coolman in 2019 that he was sure he’d found the right combination of players to give voice to Kirkland’s music: “I didn’t know right away that we were going to do the Kenny recording, but I did decide, on those initial trio gigs, that we would play a bunch of Kenny’s music, partly as a way of connecting with a new group on some repertoire that’s different. After we played a couple of gigs, it felt so good I said, ‘Yep, this is the band I’m going to do this Kenny project with.’
“This project,” he adds, “was always going to happen. Kenny’s impact is not fully understood, especially outside of a certain generation of pianists: myself, Robert Glasper, Jason Moran. We came up in the shadow of Kenny Kirkland and he is as important to us as people like Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner. I also knew that Billy had recorded with Kenny on several occasions and had played with him throughout Kenny’s career—maybe less at the very end, but they had been working together since the ’70s.”
Part of Kirkland’s appeal to Haidu lies in the late musician’s flexibility; he spent significant time working with both Wynton and Branford Marsalis, but also with Sting. “They were together 11 years or so,” Haidu says of Kirkland’s association with the former leader of the Police, “and I think he loved that type of music. He was into it. [When I first heard Kirkland with Sting] there was some pretty adventurous jazz playing stuck in the middle of a fun pop record. Kenny went about his music in a pure way,” Haidu adds. “He had zero interest in having a public persona and seeking out record-label attention; he didn’t have an interest in becoming known. He made this massive contribution and had this huge knowledge, but he was happy to be behind the scenes, enabling incredible music from the piano. He was an incredible soloist and an incredible accompanist, but he didn’t need a whole lot of credit.”
Doctone was recorded over a few sessions in New York in the summer of 2019. The Kirkland originals were drawn from albums led by Wynton Marsalis, Charles Fambrough, and Kirkland himself, while the track “Chance” served as Kirkland’s contribution to Hart’s 1985 Oshumare album. Some of the tunes are fairly faithful to Kirkland’s arrangements, while others, such as “Steepian Faith,” have been reimagined from the ground up. (“You might not recognize it right away. We each sort of buried the melody in a lot of different harmonies and rhythms,” Haidu notes.)
“It’s an amalgam of different recordings that Kenny’s been a part of,” Haidu says of the tribute, “the ones that spoke to me the deepest. There was a pretty strong emotional reaction to the music. It speaks to his unique approach to composing; all that stuff is classic Kenny Kirkland. It’s sort of irreverent. A lot of it has a swinging underpinning but it definitely screws with rhythms in a way that, at least at the time that stuff was written, was pretty unusual. It has that 20th-century classical language. Some of it’s through-composed and very searching harmonically.”
In addition to the music itself, Haidu took a couple of extra steps and released Doctone as a multimedia package including a book and film dedicated to Kirkland. “What’s important to me is to have a deeper emotional connection with the music, getting past the technical aspect, which I’d like to think is addressed. So now it’s like, how do we get to that deeper level that transports people? You want to escape into a whole other world, as a listener, as a band member. It’s not a gig, it’s an experience. And it’s not just notes on a page, it’s a life.”