Impressions of Eric Dolphy


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Dolphy's language is so unique that there are few copycats--there aren't many artists who have assmilated [his work] into their playing.
—Russ Johnson
Note: The title refers to a composition by Prince Lasha, recorded on his 1966 UK CBS album Insight.

The history of jazz is a recorded history, one that exists on commercially-issued albums (many of which, thankfully, are in print or have been reissued) as well as a vast amount of concert recordings passed around among the cognoscenti and the intrepid researchers/musicians. For every historian who bemoans the lack of a Buddy Bolden cylinder, there are countless acetates, reel tapes, LPs, 78s and CDs available of sessions like Coltrane's Village Vanguard recordings, Charlie Parker's air-checks, Ellington's suites or Charles Mingus' 1964 concert tour.

One of the participants in both the aforementioned Coltrane and Mingus dates is the late reedman Eric Dolphy, who relocated to New York from Los Angeles in 1959 and was one of the most renowned (and controversial) figures in jazz during the 1960s. However, his prolific and promising recording career was cut short by his death from diabetic complications in 1964. His passing did not come after wallowing in obscurity for years , but rather at what appeared to be his zenith, inviting critics and musicians to wonder how the landscape of jazz might have changed had he lived.

This March [2008] at Merkin Hall, his final domestic studio recording, Out To Lunch (Blue Note, 1964) is revisited on stage by trumpeter Russ Johnson and a quintet featuring Roy Nathanson (reeds), pianist Myra Melford, drummer George Schuller and bassist Brad Jones. Merkin regularly presents concerts in homage to an album, and they asked Johnson to do Out To Lunch. It's an opportunity that excites the trumpeter, who attributes to Dolphy an influence that "has changed my intervallic approach to the trumpet. Dolphy's language is so unique that there are few copycats—there aren't many artists who have assimilated [his work] into their playing."

In addition to Dolphy, Johnson cites Booker Little and Woody Shaw, two trumpeters who worked with the reedman, as influences. The Merkin Hall concert will present Out To Lunch in its entirety, played in keeping with its original spirit, as well as never-before-heard Dolphy compositions from the Schuller archives, Gunther Schuller's "Little Blue Devil," and possibly a smattering of Johnson's favorite Dolphy tunes.

Dolphy's music, so infused with his personality as it is, may be an infrequent candidate for regular and serious interpretation, but mention should also be made of the Japanese guitarist and electronic improviser Otomo Yoshihide, whose New Jazz Orchestra recast Out To Lunch in a bright clash of colors in 2005. "I like the music not to be like Dolphy when we perform it, or [even] like American jazz, because we would like to interpret his music, which we love, with our own methods." Dolphy's tunes are a part of the ONJO's repertoire, and "as for interpretation of [them], it's not under any specific condition. It is a treasure house of rich, undiscovered ideas. But it is not mere repetition and it is a process for these new discoveries."

Likewise, though Johnson's outfit will be playing the pieces fairly straight, there is latitude for a lot of individual spirit—indeed, the original recording was absent a piano, but Melford's work has so much character that she more than makes up for not having a vibraphone handy.

Though Dolphy was, like his compatriots John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, a restless seeker who practiced incessantly and with every recording seemed to be bringing his arsenal of instruments—alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute—to new heights, the final year of his life seemed to offer the most drastic changes in his art. In 1963, he cut a pair of albums under the supervision of producer Alan Douglas, posthumously released as Conversations (FM Records, 1963) and Iron Man (Douglas, 1963). These sessions joined Dolphy with reedmen Clifford Jordan, Sonny Simmons and Prince Lasha, trumpeter Woody Shaw, drummers J.C. Moses and Charles Moffett, bassists Eddie Kahn and Richard Davis, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and bassoonist Garvin Bushell on a program of the leader's originals, several standards and the vibrant Lasha-Simmons calypso "Music Matador."

Though a number of different aggregations of this group were used throughout the sessions, probably the most striking were a series of duets with Dolphy and Davis, including a lengthy and fascinating improvisation on "Alone Together," for bass clarinet and contrabass. Their perfectly-mated interplay was the blueprint for a unison sonata that was part of "Something Sweet, Something Tender," the centerpiece of the first side of Out To Lunch.

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."

Depending on whom you ask, Dolphy is remembered for a number of things. Certainly, his work on bass clarinet is vastly important, for he created a unique language on the instrument never thought possible. Mengelberg says that "finally what remained is the bass clarinet, in my opinion. I listen to some bass clarinet playing that is very authentic and very much Eric Dolphy, very much fun, for every saxophone tries to sound like a bass clarinet nowadays."

Indeed, in Europe, players like Rudi Mahall, Theo Jorgensmann, Michel Portal and Denis Colin have expanded on the instrument to no end. Trumpeter Ted Curson, who worked alongside Dolphy in the Mingus band of 1960-1961 notes the following: "I loaned Dolphy the money to buy the bass clarinet, and Mingus said 'oh, don't play that shit in my band, man!' This went on, and when it first started, it was almost as if Eric didn't hear him. Every time Eric pulled it out, Mingus would go crazy. Mingus didn't like it until we played in Antibes and the people trashed us; then he liked it. Every time Eric pulled it out—oh, man! Eric was amused by it, though."

His kindness and strength of character was a quality that was universally felt by all his colleagues. Nathan Davis relates an incident after his [Davis'] pregnant wife was injured in a car accident on the way to Germany, "Eric came back to the apartment and said, 'Nat, the best thing you can do is play. Don't worry, it's gonna be all right.' When the other cats were going out after the gig, he put his arm around me and said, 'no, you guys go ahead. Nat needs me here.'" Yet when Miles reamed Dolphy's playing in a 1964 Down Beat interview, Nathan Davis relates that it upset the reedman greatly. As much an intrepid explorer as he was, he was serious about his art and pained by the lack of acceptance he sometimes felt, especially in America.

At the end of Last Date, there is an audio clip tacked on of Dolphy making the following statement: "When you hear music, after it's over it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again..." Dolphy was wrong on two counts—the recordings live on, and there are people like Russ Johnson, who merges the spirit of his forebears with his own at Merkin Hall.

Selected Discography

Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Orchestra, Out To Lunch (Doubt Music, 2005)
Eric Dolphy & Nathan Davis, Naima/Unrealized Tapes (West Wind, 1964)
Eric Dolphy, Last Date (Fontana, 1964)
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964)
Eric Dolphy, Conversations (FM, 1963)
Eric Dolphy, Iron Man (Douglas, 1963)

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