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Eric Dolphy: Gone In The Air

Mark Werlin By

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When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again. —Eric Dolphy
Newly-remastered SACD reissues of Eric Dolphy's albums for the Prestige label mark the 90th anniversary of his birth.

The recording sessions that Eric Dolphy led in the last four years of his life advanced the evolution of jazz. It was a tragedy that Eric Dolphy gave himself so completely and unselfishly to art that he neglected to attend to the mundane demands of bodily health. The impact of his death on June 29, 1964 at age 36 is immeasurable. The sudden loss traumatized his closest friends and deprived the world of his gifts. Dolphy's musical conception was seen by some critics as destructive and incomprehensible, though he affirmed the highest standards of jazz tradition. His most passionate supporters were fellow musical innovators, and his most hostile detractors were complacent musical conservatives. Eric's playing rose up above the din and distractions, like the songs of the birds in his parents' garden.

ACT ONE: preparation

The entrance of Eric Dolphy onto the jazz stage of New York was delayed so long that it could be said the play of his life had only two acts.

The first act was set in Los Angeles, where Eric Allan Dolphy was born on June 20, 1928. Eric's musical journey initially followed the same road as many jazz musicians of his generation: instrument study in high school with additional private lessons; then college or conservatory classes in music theory. Dolphy's technical perfectionism and precocious mastery of Charlie Parker's alto saxophone style brought him into contact with composer-bassist Charles Mingus. Eric performed on "The Story of Love," a large-ensemble session in 1949, one of relatively few recordings Mingus made prior to his departure from the West Coast.

In 1952, after a two-year stint in the Army, Dolphy faced the choice of moving to New York with the hope of distinguishing himself in a highly competitive pool of talented bebop players, or staying in Los Angeles and pursuing commercial session work. He chose neither option, and it was a consequential decision. His father improvised a rehearsal studio for him on their property, and for the next six years Eric Dolphy rehearsed privately, and with local and touring musicians. John Coltrane, while on a West Coast tour with the Miles Davis Quintet, visited Eric's studio. Coltrane had only recently emerged from a decade-long rigorous and lonely practice regimen; he understood what Eric was seeking to achieve. The two entered into a close friendship that lasted for the rest of Dolphy's life.

In the 1950s professional jazz musicians paid their dues night after night in smoke-filled clubs. They toured with big bands and small combos, learned how to play to an audience's expectations, and slogged through charts that barely challenged their abilities but earned them a paycheck. For several years, Eric Dolphy paid hardly any of those dues. He found local nightclub work, sometimes in projects with his friends Buddy Colette and Gerald Wilson. What he was hearing had little to do with the West Coast "cool jazz" sound. In long hours rehearsing in his room, he studied the bass clarinet, an orchestral instrument with a four-octave range. Bass clarinet was prominently featured in the work of 20th century Russian and Second Vienna School composers, and brought to a wide listening audience in recorded performances by Harry Carney, a member of the Duke Ellington orchestra. Dolphy's practice regimen allowed him to master this difficult instrument, and to develop a saxophone-like style of playing over the entire range. To Eric, all sounds were beautiful: he listened to the birds in his parents' garden and sought to evoke their songs on his third instrument, the flute.

ACT TWO: performance

At age 30 Eric was propelled out of his rehearsal room onto the wider stage of professional music. Eric's friend Buddy Collette, also a multi-instrumentalist, was leaving the Chico Hamilton band. On Collette's recommendation, Hamilton hired Dolphy and took him on the road and into the studio. Hamilton recorded for nationally-distributed record labels; for the first time, Dolphy's Parkerian alto and distinctive bass clarinet sounds were heard by fellow musicians, critics and jazz listeners. Eric's earliest recording with the Hamilton group was a set of Duke Ellington compositions recorded in August 1958 that producer Dick Bock at Pacific Jazz, reportedly displeased with Eric's distinctive alto saxophone playing, pulled from release. (Chico Hamilton with Eric Dolphy: The Original Ellington Suite was sourced from an LP test pressing located in England and sent to producer Michael Cuscuna, who oversaw its long-belated release in 2000). The setback was a disturbing omen of the critical obstacle course Eric would confront in subsequent years.

At the end of 1959, the Chico Hamilton group was disbanded. Dolphy settled in New York, ready for new challenges. He'd felt artistically constrained during his time with Hamilton; he was hearing unusual alternate chords superimposed over the written chords in the charts, and he wanted to play those notes, not just the 'right' notes. Like Mingus, he listened to the developments of 20th century classical music; like Coltrane, he strived to play inside the traditions laid down by preceding generations, but with the freedom to venture outside the boundaries of bebop harmonic conventions.

In a short time, Dolphy advanced to the frontline of new creative music. Signed to the Prestige New Jazz division, he began a busy recording schedule.

Out There

For his second Prestige session Out There, he requested Ron Carter, with whom he'd played in Chico Hamilton's group. Dolphy conceived of a pianoless quartet with Carter on cello, and no additional horn. Reduction from the standard bebop quintet opened space for an intimate, chamber music style of performance, a framework for Dolphy and Carter to venture "out there." The rhythm section of George Duvivier and Roy Haynes were in the elite of professional musicians, technically equipped to play any style of jazz. Haynes would be Coltrane's choice to fill in for Elvin Jones during Jones' worst period of heroin use.

Although not named on the album's liner notes, Esmond Edwards is credited on AllMusic and Discogs with the 'audio production' of Out There. Dolphy's recordings for Prestige, as a leader and as a sideman with Oliver Nelson, Mal Waldron, and Makanda Ken McIntyre, were all produced by Edwards.

Esmond Edwards was an accomplished photographer whose images appear on many classic Prestige and Blue Note covers. He rose from Prestige's mailroom to become an in-house producer. Compared to Blue Note, Prestige was a cut-rate operation; it's a tribute to Edwards' resourcefulness that he could produce a date as accomplished as Out There on the kind of low budgets Prestige owner Bob Weinstock allotted.

From the tightly-arranged alto saxophone and cello unison lines on the title track it is clear that Dolphy and Carter are breathing the same rarefied air. Carter takes the first solo, deploying slurs, slides, bounced bow, and double-stops, a virtuoso display that boasts 'I can play anything you throw at me.' Dolphy constructs an unsettling, innovative melodic solo grounded in familiar rhythmic patterns learned from Charlie Parker's recordings. His articulation is almost preternaturally distinct—the reward of endless hours practicing in his rehearsal room. The long lines of notes, each carrying weight and emphasis, the wide interval leaps and false fingered quarter-tones, the sheer unpredictability of his ideas, generate a sound concept unlike Parker or his successors and imitators.

Dolphy's tribute to Charles Mingus, "The Baron," follows the same structure as "Out There," an opening head of angular lines played in unison, this time by the bass clarinet and cello. A cello solo by Carter ends with Dolphy's sudden entrance—as if he were compelled to interrupt Carter in mid-conversation. Dolphy explores the range of the instrument in a dazzling, modernistic solo. The pressure of recording an album in just a few hours of studio time may have driven his impatience to play as much as possible. There are anecdotes about his tendency to jump in unexpectedly when his fellow players hadn't quite finished.

The arrangement of Mingus' song "Eclipse" with Dolphy on his first instrument, the Bb clarinet, moves the set into chamber music territory. Dolphy interprets the long, sustained-notes theme without undue emphasis, using narrow vibrato, while Carter solos eloquently on the cello and Duvivier bows subtle counter-melodies. Dolphy's solo is a dance-like cascade of melodic invention, with leaps into the upper register and graceful descending arpeggios.

Hale Smith's composition "Feathers," which closes the album, reprises the characteristic alto saxophone sound of Dolphy's earliest work with Chico Hamilton, the purity of tone and masterful control of intonation and dynamics. Over bowed bass and plucked cello, Dolphy expresses more effectively than words can convey the poignant evanescence of the musical moment.

Kevin Gray's excellent new transfer, which is noticeably warmer and more detailed than the earlier Fantasy SACD release, shines a light on the methods used by session engineer Rudy Van Gelder to enhance the unusual qualities of this ensemble. On most of the tunes, Ron Carter's cello is panned to the right channel with Roy Haynes' drum kit, but on some tracks Van Gelder moves him to the center for a closer blend with George Duvivier. RVG's practice of increasing and decreasing the level of reverb in the live mix (made more audible in high resolution), needlessly softens the bite of the bows on strings.

Tracks 1. Out There 2. Serene 3. The Baron 4. Eclipse 5. 17 West 6. Sketch Of Melba 7. Feathers

Personnel Eric Dolphy, alto sax, flute, bass clarinet and Bb clarinet; Ron Carter, cello; George Duvivier, bass; Roy Haynes, drums

Audio production by Esmond Edwards. Recorded at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, August 15, 1960

Mastered for SACD by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio

Live At The Five Spot Vol. 1

Live performances allowed Dolphy greater freedom to explore the landscape of his personal musical terrain. On the Mal Waldron composition "Fire Waltz" Eric Dolphy's feet are firmly planted in the soil of jazz tradition, but his alto saxophone soars out of the field of bebop clichés. His solo plunges toward harmonic chaos, punctuated by out-of-chord high notes and glossolalia-like figures. Booker Little, whose hard bop lines rarely stray outside the changes, and composer Waldron, who builds the emotional center of his solo on an interpolation of Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy," sound conservative by comparison.

Little's tune "Bee Vamp" features Dolphy on bass clarinet. By the middle of his solo, constrained by Waldron's sympathetic but conventional comping, Dolphy alternates between rapid-fire atonal outbursts and articulate phrases that run closer to the chord changes. The tension between Dolphy's avant-garde leanings and Waldron's traditionalism creates a strangely uncomfortable mood; though the ensemble playing is tight and compelling, the players' conceptions are too diverse for the performances to cohere. Dolphy doesn't need the chain and anchor of received musical wisdom.
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