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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.


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