Adam Dorn's Mocean Worker
By Gary Susman
AUGUST 2, 1999: Adam Dorn missed his senior prom, but he had a good excuse. He was fetching water for Miles Davis during the recording of the jazz titan's album Amandla.
The 28-year-old Dorn spent much of his youth hanging out with jazz's top players -- many of whom were visitors to his family home, since his father is veteran record producer Joel Dorn -- and much of his early adulthood playing bass for them. Today, father and son run 32 Jazz, a label that reissues music from the catalogues of such houses as Muse and Landmark, representing such artists as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef, and Red Garland.
Of course, that's just Dorn's day job. He also continues to work as a studio and touring bassist behind pop acts; at this writing, he's on tour in England, backing up Beth Orton and Bryan Ferry. He's earned his greatest renown, however, as an electronica DJ, under the nom de disc Mocean Worker, the artist behind last year's CD Home Movies from the Brain Forest and the recently released Mixed Emotional Features (Palm Pictures).
Naturally, Dorn's Mocean Worker music is peppered with allusions to classic jazz, blues, and funk. A noteworthy track on Brainforest sampled Mahalia Jackson's medley "Summertime/Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child." Features uses a lot of familiar-sounding piano, horn, and bass riffs, and it includes a track called "Counts, Dukes & Strays," an homage to Basie, Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn. But there's more to Mocean Worker (a creative misspelling of Motion Worker, a company that makes studio tape-sequencing machines) than just the usual acid-jazz attempt to dress up lackluster dance music with borrowed class, funk, and mystique. Dorn is perfectly capable of creating combustible, densely textured tracks on his own (the aptly named "Detonator" or "Wonderland"). He's also thoroughly steeped in popular and literary culture, making allusions to Magritte ("Rene M"), Arthur Conan Doyle ("Mycroft," named for Sherlock Holmes's smarter brother and a tribute, Dorn says, to his own brother, David), Lenny Bruce (sampled on "Heaven @ 12:07"), and George Lucas ("Boba Fett"). As he quips, "I can sit down and talk to you about Chick Webb or Jack Webb."
Interviewed in his 32 Jazz office in midtown Manhattan, Dorn sports a shaved pate, a goatee, a hoop in each ear, and enough Adidas wear to join Run-D.M.C. In the next room is his father, Joel, 57, who designs covers and writes liner notes for the reissues that Adam programs and edits. Dorn the younger has bridged the gap between his two careers with the 32 compilations Groove Jammy and Groove Jammy 2, both released in the last year under the Mocean Worker name. Each offers hard jazz-funk tracks from the '70s (by such acts as Catalyst, Kenny Barron, and Buster Williams) that Dorn has subtly re-edited. "The real thing with those records is, like, here's some groups that made some cool '70s funk records," he explains. "And this is me being a prick, maybe, but sometimes, they'd be onto something really cool and then just go into the dumbest idea. So I'm like, my ball, my rules. I get to edit whatever I want and smash things together. It's not to make it sound current. It's more like, here's the funky section of a song that's 19 minutes long, and here's the eight minutes that work."
In any case, Dorn says the distance between his jazz background and his electronic present is "not that big of a leap. I have some friends who are second- or third-generation music-business kids, and we're just open to doing lots of different stuff, because you realize from seeing your parents struggle in the music business that you really have to do a little bit of everything.
"The main reason I got into electronic music and dance music is, I never really thought of myself as an artist. I still don't. But I felt like, hey, what's a better way to get people's attention than to make records that are cool, that you like, that are a representation of yourself?
"These records came out of necessity. Trying to be a career bass player or studio musician, it just doesn't exist. When I go play on other people's records, it's not really a representation of myself. I'm working for other people. This one facet of my life is me doing what I want to do and not having to answer to an A&R guy or a star. That's weird. A lot of these singers aren't musicians. It's unfulfilling. At certain points, I'd much rather drive a taxi. It's fun to play bass, and music is cool, but not when you're working for some French singer who doesn't know the difference between the bridge and the verse of a song that he wrote."
Dorn does have extensive musical training, some of which he picked up at Boston's Berklee School of Music. "I was there for three semesters. I don't know what it is with that school. You get a gig and you leave. I'm suspicious about people who graduate from that school, though there are some great musicians who graduate from there.
"I got a gig with a singer from Boston named Stacy Brown who lied and said she was Bobby Brown's sister so she could get booked in Japan. And we went, and her voice went out the first gig. We went from being a funk band that had a couple of sets to opening up the Real Book and playing jazz tunes for these people, who were so mad."
Dorn probably learned more from the jazz greats he's always rubbed shoulders with, "guys like Eddie Harris or Les McCann, friends of my father. I played a week of dates in Boston with Les. Eddie walked me around Lake Geneva once, at the Montreux Festival in '93, and I'll never forget this. He was wearing a bright orange sweatsuit that you could see for three miles. We're walking around, and he just was yelling at me. 'You don't play nothing on the bass. You're not melodic.' He taught me everything I needed to know about the way I play bass -- and he's a horn player -- in an afternoon. My whole playing career changed. In fact, I stopped playing. I was like, 'I'm just going to play a certain way, and that's it,' and I only played another two years, and then I stopped and started making this kind of music.
"The best thing I've learned from musicians is nothing about music. One of the main life lessons is, I don't want to be just a bass player. The people that I grew up around and that my father worked with, I saw them struggle. If you're going to do music and you have the ability to play an instrument, that means you're artistic, and you always should be checking out other ways to do the same thing. You don't just count on one thing paying the ticket for the ride. Check out everything. If you've got to play some piano, learn how to play piano. If you have to produce and not play on the record, learn how to do all of it."
Of his father Dorn says, "I think what I've learned from him most is, unless you really feel it, and it's close to your heart, don't do it. Always do your best work. Don't do something just to get a paycheck, ever. When we make records together, it's not about you, it's always about the artist, presenting them in the best light, seeing their goals through fruition. I've seen him do that with some wild artists, like Leon Redbone or the Neville Brothers. He doesn't dictate. He reacts. And things get done much better that way. He's got a great attitude. Forty years in the business. And I don't make the same mistakes he made because I've seen him screw up. It's good to be second-generation. I can ask him advice about anything."
What did Joel, by example, teach Adam not to do? "To be emotional and lose my temper. In the '70s, he was pretty egomaniacal. You have to keep your composure and not get emotional. Just make it pleasant. No one's telling you that your leg is going to get chopped off tomorrow, so it can't be that big a deal. I really learned that lesson most when I did a record for a French pop singer named Patricia Kaas who's very big in Europe and Russia. I just watched these people worry about, like [assumes French accent], 'Aah! We cannot have gardenias in the studio. She will not sing for a week!' I wanted to tell this girl that one chromosome different and she's driving a bus in the Sarne River basin in Alsace-Lorraine. People worry about some dumb stuff. Focus on the music and what you want to get done and not what you want to buy from Prada."
Dorn's "unfulfilling" experiences with several French artists, along with what he discreetly refers to as "a bad break-up" preceded the recording of Brainforest, which he now dismisses as "a mistake. The second album [Emotional Features], I was more relaxed. I had a deal already. This record was just three weeks, make a record, turn it in, no one gets hurt. To me it's a better record because it has more energy and it's more positive. There's hipper things on the first one, but there's more musical things on the second one. The goal was just to stay musical and not follow any trends, not to say, 'Here's this version of drum 'n' bass' or 'electronica' or whatever. I just think people call it 'drum 'n' bass' for lack of a better description."
The labeling of each new splintering subgenre of electronic music amuses Dorn no end. "Friends of mine, we were in London, and we had a contest to come up with the dumbest subgenres of dance music. My friend came up with 'filthy acid speed calypso.' It cracks me up when people call my stuff drum 'n' bass because it's not. It's just music. Listen to it and make up your own mind. I know that sounds trite, but it's just music. It has some energy to it that you could liken to drum 'n' bass. But I pride myself on the fact that I make records where each song is totally different. They're not related except that I used a sampler to make them."
To Dorn, electronica has reached an innovative standstill, and no one knows when or what the next breakthrough will be. "Hopefully, there could be a trend toward more intelligent, home-listening kinds of dance music that people could listen to while they're at their computers, checking out stuff on-line. My stuff would sit there more. It's not club stuff. I drop my stuff in clubs because promoters expect me to, but I have nothing that I'd want to hear really loud in a club. I can't believe someone wants to dance to this.
"Everyone's waiting to see what will happen, what's coming up. I love dance music, and I love making the records that I make, but it ain't the future. I make my living writing library music for television production because they want something electronic but they don't want to go to a label and license it. I'm trying to find the next thing so I can make a living. I didn't get into electronic music to make money and meet chicks. It's just what I feel like doing right now. In a couple years, I could be scoring films. My next record could be a tribute to Gil Evans. Everything old is new again. I like going backwards to go forwards."
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