Leon Lee Dorsey & Mike Clark Find Sympatico

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“I grew up around entrepreneurial family, so the label was [both] serendipitous and a little bit of calculation,” Dorsey said of his Jazz Avenue 1 Records.

(Photo: Steve Korn)

When it comes to the caliber, variety and release pace of his recordings, heavyweight bassist/composer/arranger Leon Lee Dorsey isn’t messing around. Dorsey’s most recent leader record, Cantaloupe Island, on his label Jazz Avenue 1 Records, is his sixth release since 2019 — a streak of records that includes drummer Mike Clark.

Releasing music whenever and however he wants is one of the many benefits of being a fully independent artist with his own label run out of Dorsey’s Manhattan home. And the bassist, who’s performed with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to George Benson, is the first to point that out. But this impressive run is also indicative of something Ron Carter, Dorsey’s teacher while he earned his doctorate in double bass from the Grad Center at City University of New York, instilled in him — discipline.

“You hear Herbie Hancock, you put on a Duke Ellington record, put on a Prince record ... you know this is not just natural talent,” said Dorsey. “Tens of thousands of hours went into [them] being the sort of artists that they are. Ron taught me [that, and] what it means to be great, mentally and spiritually.”

That said, Dorsey’s dedication was there before Carter’s influence. Growing up in Pittsburgh — hometown to many important jazz greats, including Erroll Garner, Ray Brown and George Benson — Dorsey’s life was saturated by jazz history, and by music being made presently in the area’s close-knit Black community. It helped, too, that his parents were well-connected pillars in the community as owners of a local funeral home.

“My mom knew a lot of the families, like Ahmad Jamal’s. … You met people who had played, been on the road,” said Dorsey. “Matter of fact, you won’t believe this, but there was a janitor at the University of Pittsburgh named Bass McMahon ... who had played with Fletcher Henderson. There were all these people [there] from each generation of jazz.”

After picking up the bass as a pre-teen, Dorsey earned quite the music education growing up in the Steel City, leading to his being one of the youngest members of Lionel Hampton’s band, a gig that gave the bassist an opportunity to open for Frank Sinatra while still in his early 20s. Ever the dedicated student, Dorsey went on to earn two bachelor’s degrees in music from Oberlin College, master’s degrees from University of Wisconsin and Manhattan School of Music and a doctorate. He now teaches at Berklee College of Music, and has steadily gigged and toured throughout his career.

It was on a pre-pandemic gig, in fact, that Dorsey first crossed paths with drummer Mike Clark, known globally for his funk stylings in The Headhunters during the 1970s. They both are a bit fuzzy on the specifics of their initial meeting, except for the fact that musically, it was love at first sight.

“He was such a nice guy and played great … then, I ended up on a record date at his house,” said Clark, recalling the session for their first release, 2019’s Monktime. “Man, the vibe was mellow and everybody was talking a mile a minute and having fun. The music, it really swung. So, we just kind of started a phone friendship talking, and then I was like, well, let’s do another project.”

And so, they have — and then some. In fact, Dorsey created Jazz Avenue 1 Records to support their fruitful collaboration. He runs the label out of his New York duplex, where he also operates a full-service recording studio.

“I grew up around entrepreneurial family, so … the label … was [both] serendipitous and a little bit of calculation,” said Dorsey. “It’s almost like [when] Henry Ford put those keys in and he goes, ‘I don’t know if this car is going to blow up or drive.’”

Jazz Avenue 1 hit the highway. After the Monk tribute with guitarist Greg Skaff, Dorsey and Clark went on to put out the Beatles-inspired Wolff/Clark/Dorsey Play Sgt. Pepper with pianist Michael Wolff, Thank You Mr. Mabern with the legendary pianist himself, Latin-focused Freedom Jazz Dance with pianist Manuel Valera, last year’s Blues On Top, a well-received study of the blues with pianist Mike LeDonne, and now Cantaloupe Island.

The new record features Hancock’s quintessential jazz-funk tune, as well as compositions from Horace Silver, Prince and more — all shaped around the soulful Benson-meets-Montgomery vibe of featured guitarist Russell Malone.

Malone, who has had a long-standing partnership with Ron Carter, has been in Dorsey’s orbit for a while. As for Clark, this was his first time playing with the guitarist, but he had Wes Montgomery’s “Thumb,” ready to go. From there, things developed organically, as they followed the road map of tunes that Dorsey and Clark had put together with Malone in mind, including Horace Silver’s spritely waltz, “Barbara,” and the Latin-inspired “Bumpin’ On Sunset,” from Wes Montgomery’s 1966 album Tequila.

“It would have been real easy to make [a whole swing] record with Russell, … [but] George Benson and Wes Montgomery, they can swing, be funky and they’re soulful. Russell does this in his own way,” said Dorsey.

As it allows Malone to do his thing, Cantaloupe Island highlights the natural spaciousness guitar brings as a melody instrument, and the easy vibe of the session. The result is a collection of tunes that hold onto the spontaneity and excitement of a live gig.

“It reminded me of the old days, like three guys walk in and just play some tunes. We did have a road map. We didn’t just walk in and jam, you know, … [but] everybody was hearing everything and feeling everything, and we were all like, really listening,” said Clark.

Dorsey, proud of the presence and collaboration on Cantaloupe Island, is revved up for the next thing. The pair have already planned out their next few records that they hope to release as soon as possible, consciously bucking the modern convention of releasing one album per year. Their independent status allows for such creative freedoms.

“Trane’s entire output was in 12 years,” said Dorsey. “That’s averaging five albums a year. This thing with one record once a year … that’s not the model that Miles and them did. So, I’m … like, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Whatever comes next, Dorsey knows each project will be special in its own way, just as the last six were.

“[Our] albums, they’re as distinctive as they are similar in that they’re recorded in the same room, but the energy on that [session], even though Mike and myself were the constant, is still going to be new,” said Dorsey. “They’re all magical.” DB



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