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Artist Profiles

Impressions of Eric Dolphy

By Published: March 12, 2008
Lasha's primary reason for moving to New York from California in 1963 was the possibility of hooking up with Dolphy. He relates: "I was in the record store one day and heard this alto player, and [Sonny] Simmons was with me, and I said 'who is that?' He said 'that's Eric Dolphy' and I said 'is that Eric Dolphy in New York? Simmons, look. You gonna be ready to go in a couple weeks'—Simmons adds that Dolphy said he "'loved that composition you two wrote ["Music Matador"]; I want to record you and I'm taking you on a record date.' When we got there he said 'we're going to play that composition you two wrote, first piece, first track.'"

But Out To Lunch was a huge advance on the Douglas recordings; Davis and Hutcherson returned, as did early band mate, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Tony Williams was the latest in a long line of forward- thinking drummers to grace the chair in Dolphy's bands, placing the drum kit in the front line alongside four other musicians. Hutcherson occupied a melodic and rhythmic role, playing up the tension between the two sides of his instrument while skirting chordal outlines and in a continually-shifting counterpoint with the horns and with the ever-pliable Davis, as Williams picked apart meter in a teasing, nearly provocative fashion.

While previous Dolphy sessions often included at least a couple of tunes from the standard repertoire, Out To Lunch is made up of five of the leader's compositions, all of them new at the time. Though the compositions themselves are interesting lines, this is the first of Dolphy's records to rely almost entirely on collective improvisation—specifically, the trio of Hutcherson, Williams and Davis improvising in a tight, constantly-shifting web around the horn soloists and in a way that usually sways attention from either Hubbard or Dolphy—in fact, it's fair to say that Dolphy has subsumed his role here.

Following this recording and a date with pianist-composer Andrew Hill Point of Departure, (Blue Note, 1964), Dolphy went to Europe with Mingus' band, which he had briefly rejoined. After concerts in Holland, Germany, and France, Dolphy left the group and gigged in Paris with a group featuring trumpeter Donald Byrd and reedman Nathan Davis at Le Chat Qui Peche. Davis relates that he'd "never been in a band that practiced as much as we practiced [with Dolphy]; we had daily rehearsals and played every night from 10 PM till 4 AM. When we would finish playing, we would go to the Living Room to hear Aaron Bridges and Art Simmons, who were Tatum-esque pianists. He'd say 'listen to Art Tatum—the first thing you need to do every day is listen to him.'"

Dolphy was a hugely inquisitive musician, and not only practiced incessantly but also listened to vast amounts of music. His interest in Indian music and ragas was well-known, and he also listened extensively to Hungarian folk music and East European composers. Dolphy was cultured and worldly; Davis notes that "now, the first thing I do is go to the library, museums, ballet. That's where I get my inspiration from. Joyce [Mordecai, Dolphy's fiancee] was supposed to be in the Royal Danish Ballet. He said to learn about the culture—I went to Poland after he died and checked out the ballet and the museums."

There is a significant amount of speculation about what Dolphy would have done had he not succumbed so soon—he is reported to have been interested in working with Cecil Taylor, and apparently befriended Albert Ayler, enough that Sunny Murray claims he was to join their quartet in late 1964. Davis says this: "Dolphy was going to Berlin; after the end of [our] band, Eric was going to do a gig in Berlin with Karl Berger. He said 'when I get back, I want to bring my own band from America here with Richard Davis, Billy Higgins and Woody Shaw.'" A few recordings from this last European sojourn survive, including a radio recording of the Byrd-Davis-Dolphy quintet and a big band under the direction of trumpeter Sonny Grey, not to mention Last Date (Fontana) and Epistrophy (ICP), which join Dolphy with Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink, as well as bassist Jacques Schols.

Mengelberg was very impressed with Dolphy's musicianship, and wrote the tune "Hypochristmutreefuzz" for him: "I knew that he would not have enough breath to play the piece, and that I thought was funny, but for someone who was going to die that soon, it wasn't good to make fun like that. I hope he did not die in trying to develop the circular breath to play my piece or something—I wouldn't ask from him to do that at all! I was impressed by the quality of his ideas in improvisation very much."

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