Sunday, June 29, 2014

Following Eric Dolphy

For all the lack of audience and shaky economic prospects, your average jazz musician is someone who works very hard to master their instrument and knows music theory inside out. Even if it doesn't permeate all of it, there is, within jazz, an honourable tradition of art for art's sake, of the fight against oneself and the infinite choices offered by music and sound. In more detail, the profile of a jazz musician as a young person today would be someone who got started early in music, has gone through “classical” studies of some sort, is a versatile virtuoso with their instrument, and will have to go through New York City at some point of their lives as some sort of validation.

Just like Eric Dolphy.

Eric Dolphy by Naiel Ibarrola

Dolphy, together with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane (he worked with both), was the most influential “reedman” to come up in the early 1960s. Be it on flute or, especially, on alto sax and bass clarinet, he established a way of playing that still sounds contemporary. By what can be heard today, I suspect that Dolphy has at least a comparable following among musicians, even though Coleman and Coltrane are more visible figures in the canon. But posterity is fickle.

Perhaps because he didn't fit the moulds — black but not really blues or hard-bop, West Coast but not really "cool" — it took some time for Dolphy to find his place. Interested in music from a young age to the point of obsession, his instinct drove him past the fashions of the day into "contemporary classical" music, putting him, at least for a minute, closer to Messiaen than Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

From his earlier recordings, it is obvious that Dolphy was a follower of Charlie Parker, and a very accomplished one at that; although he played and recorded regularly with the Chico Hamilton Quintet, it wasn't till he got to New York City when he really blossomed as a distinct soloist. As he told another West Coast virtuoso, Buddy Colette, his predecessor in Hamilton's band
You've got to come to New York too. This is where it is. I met Coleman Hawkins and he likes what I do. They like my sound.
It wouldn't take long for Dolphy to realize that, for all the artistic recognition, or even the publicity of a Downbeat award (best new star on alto, 1961), a jazz musician's life wasn't at all rosy. At least, he made good use of opportunities granted by the sheer concentration of talent and studios in the city and got involved in a staggering amount of projects and albums, doing everything from session work for Sammy Davis Jr., to Third Stream records and concerts (thanks to his superlative skill both as an improviser and as a reader), and a number of modern jazz records that include quite a few classics: besides his own work as a leader and sideman for Mingus and Coltrane, he's on John Lewis's The Wonderful World of Jazz, Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Max Roach's Percussion Bitter Sweet, George Russell's Ezz-Thetic, and Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, among others (see the Spotify playlist below for most of them).

An example of artistic concentration in 1960 NYC:
These two albums were recorded on the same day, December 21st (listen on Spotify),
Free Jazz at A&R, Far Cry at Van Gelder's (see map)
(Thanks to my worthy constituent Diego Sánchez Cascado for pointing this out)

For fans of American popular music of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as what could be called "tonal" jazz, Dolphy's music signals where things begin to get... complicated, especially when soloists sound disconnected from underlying rhythms or harmonies. Sometimes it's too easy to think that because I don't "know" what a musician is doing, they don't know either, even though common sense (and some humility), would dictate otherwise. This happened to well-seasoned musicians when Ornette Coleman opened at the Five Spot in New York in late 1959, so it can happen to anyone. The same may happen with Dolphy. However, whereas Coltrane could be as visceral as to reach white heat, and Ornette can confound with his mix of apparent chaos and blues, Dolphy's edginess sounds always under control, his wide intervals, non-tempered notes and "noises" seem to exist for a reason. If anything, Dolphy's music is excellent to work our aural flexibility: my favourite recording to appreciate what he was about, because of the contrast with the "mainstream" background of a beautiful piece, is Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song" arranged by Mike Zwerin (ignore the graphics).

That recording marks the start of Eric Dolphy's last year alive. The reference to Alabama in the title is also a good reminder of the social context of the US fifty years ago: JFK had just been killed, racial tension was growing, and Vietnam was about to get worse. At the same time, popular music was about to change for ever: both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones toured the States for the first time, and Dylan released "Mr. Tambourine Man". In jazz, Louis Armstrong would had an enormous hit with "Hello Dolly", and Stan Getz with "The Girl of Ipanema".

In that context, and without really knowing Dolphy's intentions, his music does sound more attuned to the times. If anything, it is hyperrealist, closer to the chaos and randomness of real life. Strictly from an artistic point of view, the fact that he recorded his own Out to Lunch, and Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, both on Blue Note, within one month, signals both a plenitude and a promise that was abruptly ended fifty years ago today, in Berlin, Germany. He was only 36.

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The biographical information on this post comes from Raymond Horricks's The Importance of Being Eric Dolphy (DJ Costello, 1989), and the chapter Ted Gioia devotes to him on his West Coast Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1992).

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The "complete" recordings of Eric Dolphy
(as available on Spotify)

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With the Chico Hamilton Quintet, Newport 1958

Eric Dolphy (fl), Nathan Gershman (cello), John Pisano (g),
Hal Gaylor (b) and Chico Hamilton (d)
July 6, 1958.

With the John Coltrane Quintet, Germany 1961

John Coltrane (ss, ts), Eric Dolphy (f, as), McCoy Tyner (p),
Reggie Workman (b), Elvin Jones (d)
Baden-Baden, Germany, December 4, 1961

On Leonard Bernstein's Journey into Jazz, 1964

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra,
Leonard Bernstein (director, narrator) Gunther Schuller (composer, conductor)
Nat Hentoff (author)
Don Ellis (tp), Eric Dolphy (as), Benny Golson (ts),
Richard Davis (b), Joe Cocuzzo (d)
Lincoln Center, NYC, February 8, 1964

With Charles Mingus in Europe, 1964

Johnny Coles (tp), Eric Dolphy (f, as, bcl), Clifford Jordan (ts),
Jaki Byard (p), Charles Mingus (b), Dannie Richmond (d)
Liege, Belgium, April 19, 1964
Oslo, Norway, April 12, 1964
Stockholm, Sweden, April 13, 1964

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