Eric Dolphy: Iron Man / Live at the Five Spot, Vol.1; Nathan Davis: The Other Side of Morning

Clifford Allen By

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In many ways, the fence-line between avant-garde and mainstream jazz was towed by Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, two reedmen whose influence crossed as many boundaries as Coltrane and who might be said to be among the true leaders of the front-line soldiers, paving the way for aspects of a sonic revolution that, ubiquitous as it is, might be taken for granted.

Dolphy's playing was extraordinarily advanced harmonically, charting hitherto little-known territory in both upper and lower registers of the alto saxophone and bass clarinet, two of his principal instruments (he also played flute and clarinet). Yet as dissonant and joyously raucous as his playing could be—not to mention the insanely fast tempos of which he was capable—Dolphy primarily played on the changes of a tune and in keeping with the possibilities afforded of both thematic material and stated and implied rhythms. In other words, at heart, Dolphy's playing was firmly within the bop tradition.

Eric Dolphy
Iron Man
Douglas-Fresh Sound

The summer before recording his last domestic album, Out To Lunch (Blue Note, 1964), Dolphy cut two sessions as a leader for producer Alan Douglas, only one of which would be released before his death. Convening in the studio were reedmen Prince Lasha, Sonny Simmons and Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Woody Shaw (here in his first recordings), vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassists Richard Davis and Eddie Khan, drummers J.C. Moses and Charles Moffett, and bassoonist Garvin Bushell. Conversations, released on FM in the early part of 1964, was for the most part loping and fairly straight ahead (with the exception of the very free Dolphy-Davis duet on "Alone Together ), but Iron Man is a different story altogether.

The album's centerpiece is the almost full ensemble recording of "Burning Spear (Moffett sits out), a lengthy orchestral piece with a dissonant head arrangement and solos by the leader (on bass clarinet), Hutcherson, Shaw and a dialogue for the bassists. Revisiting this piece, it is surprising how little use Dolphy makes of what players he has and the sonic weight at his disposal. Rather than multileveled thematic material, the piece uses a simple theme stated in two brief sections, followed by solos which are only occasionally filled out by unison horn statements. Though the two bassists seem to be walking opposite lines, the pulse of the tune is strong enough to subvert any attempts at plasticity and as powerful a drummer as Moses is, his small-group-honed Philly Joe approach doesn't really add enough color to the tentet.

"Mandrake and the title track are tight quintet affairs featuring alto, trumpet and vibes in the front line, a setting which Moses fits perfectly (he would go on to propel the New York Contemporary Five shortly thereafter). "Iron Man is a jagged modal stormer that prefigures some of Jackie McLean's work on Action (Blue Note, 1965).

Eric Dolphy
Live at the Five Spot Vol. 1

Two years before the Douglas sessions, Dolphy worked in a cooperative quintet with trumpeter Booker Little (who would tragically pass from uremia shortly thereafter), pianist Mal Waldron, drummer Ed Blackwell and Richard Davis, opening the Five Spot for a week-long engagement, some of which was recorded by Prestige.

The music from this set is tight, mildly dissonant hard bop that in fact sounds much more "inside than contemporaneous dates from Waldron, Max Roach or Booker Ervin. Little is a fairly journeyman soloist out of the Brownian school, but as a composer is where the "unrealized potential factors in, as it might with Dolphy. His work with Dolphy and Max Roach on Out Front (Candid, 1960) and George Coleman and Curtis Fuller on Booker Little and Friend (Bethlehem, 1961) shows a compositional thrust in very dissonant thematic material—something which his approach as a soloist and instrumentalist does not belie. Little only contributes one tune to this set, "Bee Vamp , a modal tune with an affinity for Dolphy's "Red Planet (aka "Miles' Mode ); a less fleshed-out version of Waldron's great "Fire Waltz opens the set and Dolphy's "The Prophet, written for painter Richard "Prophet" Jennings, closes the original album proceedings (though the CD adds another take of "Bee Vamp ).

Nathan Davis
The Other Side of Morning
Tomorrow International

Among those to work with Dolphy in his last days in Germany in 1964 was reedman Nathan Davis, an expatriate in Paris and Berlin in the '60s who returned to the United States to teach at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969. Davis, along with Donald Byrd, pianist and bandleader Jacques Dieval and trumpeter Sonny Grey, recorded the last known sessions with Dolphy in Paris in mid-June 1964, mere weeks before his death.

The Other Side of Tomorrow, a dedication to Dolphy's legacy and memory, features Davis in a septet with cellist/educator Dave Baker, who ran the University of Indiana Jazz Studies program, guitarist Ken Karsh, pianists James Johnson and Craig Davis, bassists Mike Taylor and Dwayne Dolphin and drummer Greg Humphries.

The set starts off with a truly pastoral reading of Michel Legrand's "The Summer Knows, on which Davis is able to translate from a large-vibrato, woody clarinet to a slightly breathier soprano with marked continuity, a melding of winds where upper-register soprano trills echo Dolphy's (and Davis' own) spirited flute playing. "Dolphy, featuring a sinuous line for alto, cello and guitar, is an homage to the ebullient lyricism and sheer joy that filled Eric Dolphy's music and made his personality as much an influence as his writing. Davis' vocal solo is in keeping with the soulful glossolalia that runs through a tradition of post-Bird altoists like Prince Lasha and Robin Kenyatta, not to mention its dedicee and composer.

Time appears to stop once again with "It Ain't Necessarily So, a languorous coda for alto flute and decidedly clarinet-like comments from Baker's cello that lead into a wavering mid-tempo exploration of alto flute, clarinet and tenor with a dissonance that oozes Waldron and Mingus readings. One of the things that Davis puts forth—and which certainly aligns these two kindred spirits—is that of an effervescent personality that bleeds through all instruments, why clarinet and alto might share qualities in this case, or how a tone on soprano calls to mind so closely a phrase played on flute—and that despite different instrumental approaches, so much is clearly stated in the language of improvisation.

Track and Personnel Listings

Iron Man

Tracks: Iron Man; Mandrake; Come Sunday; Burning Spear; Ode to Charlie Parker.

Personnel: Eric Dolphy: alto, bass clarinet; Woody Shaw: trumpet; Clifford Jordan: soprano saxophone; Huey Sonny Simmons: alto saxophone; Prince Lasha: flute; Bobby Hutcherson: vibraphone; Eddie Khan, Richard Davis: basses; Charles Moffett, J.C. Moses: drums.

Live at the Five Spot Vol. 1

Tracks: Fire Waltz; Bee Vamp; The Prophet; Bee Camp [alt. take].

Personnel:Ed Blackwell: drums; Richard Davis: bass; Eric Dolphy: flute, bass clarinet, alto saxophone; Booker Little: trumpet; Mal Waldron: piano.


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