Sunday, March 4, 2012

After it’s Gone: The Music of Eric Dolphy [Pt. 1]

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane at the Village Gate 1961
"Whatever I'd say would be an understatement. I can only say my life was made much better by knowing him. He was one of the greatest people I've ever known, as a man, a friend, and a musician." (John Coltrane)

48 years after his death, Eric Dolphy’s discography is available almost in its entirety, and if his first wide appearance on a book is possibly an interview reported on 1971 in Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music by American Marxist historian Frank Kofsky, in 2008 Guillome Belhomme issued his Eric Dolphy (Le Mot et Le Reste, ser. Formes).

Four years before Sardinian Festival ‘Ai Confini tra Sardegna e Jazz’ issued, in partnership with the cultural association Punta Giara, Tender Warrior: L’eredità di Eric Dolphy, accompanied by a CD containing a previously unissued Strenght and Unity along with other tracks featuring Tim Berne, Tiziano Tononi’s Nexus, MatthewShipp and David S. Ware. Again, in 2006 Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Orchestra, featuring trumpeter Axel Doerner, sinewaver Sachiko M., baritonist Mats Gustaffson, multireedist Alfred Harth and circuit bender Toshimaru Nakamura ferried Dolphy’s last creative effort on a new perspective.

On the other hand, as the record butifully testify, it seems that Los Angeles multi-reedist’s music is badly suitable for a mere re-enactment: if you start to listen to a record as Out There (Prestige, 1961) you’ll find out how much his concept and practice of music is far out, as we’ll see.

"When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." (Eric Dolphy)

Los Angeles, 1954. Saxophonist John Coltrane was loosing his engagement with Johnny Hodges. Before the tenorist got rid of his drugs habits later on in 1957, deeply involving himself in developing his new music, he experienced the difficulties of handling a career between self destructive pushes and more creative efforts, even way before being hired and fired by Miles Davis more than once.

That was the first occasion the saxophonist met Dolphy, who lented him enough money to leave and get on the West Coast. On same year's September, Trane was playing again with the local Mop Dudley and his Collates, at the cross of 13th and Poplar, Philadelphia, trying to managing his musician’s career as a freelancer.  In 1959 John’s cousin, Mary, moved to New York, being into a relationship with trombonist Charles Greenlee. They lived in a house in Brooklyn, on 245, Carlton Avenue, belonging to Slide Hampton.

In that house lived for a while also trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, guitarist Wes Montgomery, saxophonist Eric Dolphy and Richard ‘The Prophet’ Jennings, a painter responsible for Dolphy’s first albums surrealistic covers. Dolphy’s influence on the more famous fellow became evident with time. At a certain point, Coltrane stopped playing soprano, and started playing flute (as on the album Expressions, Impulse!, 1965) so to enrich his palette of colours.

But influences and relationships between Coltrane and Dolphy, despite their strong friendship, reciprocal esteem and artistic partnership, were of a different nature in comparison with the coherent flowing of one’s music into the other that had place with Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus with the altoist. Nonetheless, they were important and rich of fully enjoyable results. Trane and Dolphy first session was on May 23, 1961, for the tenor first Impulse! album, Africa/Brass.

An attempt to epithomize Trane’s efforts to date with his new quartet, with Jones polyrhythms, the bass of Reggie Workman doubled by Paul Chambers and Art Davis on the Africa takes, and the orchestra (featuring trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little, trombonist Julian Priester, Eric Dolphy on alto, flute and bass clarinet, and Pat Patrick on baritone saxophone) enriching the quartet sound with a brassy, warm touch, it was followed by another pair of records that same year.

On the original Africa/Brass sleeve notes, the arrangements provided for Greensleeves were attributed to Dolphy, but, as McCoy Tyner explained (R. Coleman, The Real McCoy, Melody Maker, Jul. 18, 1964), Coltrane asked the pianist to write them down, while Dolphy was ‘copying my voicings’. All the arrangements were coming out of Tyner’s compings.

John Coltrane himself confirmed this last version (Clouzet/Delorme, Entretien avec John Coltrane, 1963). In fact, as Eric himself reported, “John thought of this sound. He wanted brass, he wanted baritone horns, he wanted that mellow sound and power”. But the only soloists on the sessions recorded by Creed Taylor at the Rudy Van Gelder studios were the quartet members, with the brass section (including Dolphy) limited to orchestral accompaniment on the background.

The second take of Africa is provided by some counterpoint going towards a more expressionistic attitude; even the double basses are underlining some passages with strong bowed interventions. The piece, focused entirely on a pedal point bass, more than on the beat and the classical 4/4 propulsion, was given a different plasticity, and is part of the constant evolution of Coltrane’s music.

Miles Davis and Gil Evans in Columbia Studios, 1959
This evolution will lead Coltrane around 1964 and 1965 to a constant decreasing of the use of chord progressions, while the use of bass pedal points was becoming the most part of the music structure. This direction is a consequence of Trane’s partnership with Miles Davis since 1958 – producing notably records like Milestones (Columbia, 1959) and Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). Here, the trumpeter and the pianist/composer were developing modality, in short a way to get out of the bebop harmonic complexity and to enjoy a new, wider and freer melodic framing, using modes instead of chord changes as a framework for the compositions.

While further developments of music led free jazz to focus towards polyphony as far as approaching the melody, Davis’ Kind of Blue and Trane’s Impressions (Impulse!, 1961) are considered the first accomplished results of the modal approach, and even if  the concept was firstly developed by pianist George Russell, with whom Davis had some discussions even before his 1949 sessions for the album Birth of the Cool, it’s interesting that, if Miles Davis from 1968 onwards pushed forward the use of rhythmic patterns and colors shifting of On The Corner, working also extensively on pedal points as Coltrane from 1961 on, the music of Eric Dolphy moves from different territories.

This is clearly audible trough a listening to Coltrane’s India, recorded live at the Village Vanguard on November 3, 1961, and released on the album Impressions. While Garrison, Tyner and Workman are providing sparse punctuations centered around a G major, echoing a tampoura-like drone, Trane solo on soprano is following a modal-rooted horizontal development, in some way forcing Dolphy to let off his intervallic practice on his bass clarinet.

Unluckily, Dolphy interventions with Coltrane’s quartet as also on the Live at the Village Vanguard rendition of Spiritual, opening track for the album recorded on the NY club, taste more or less like sketches, if taken on their own complex. Dolphy was gifted with a beautiful, rough and warm voice, making out of him the perfect partner for the likes of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, but Trane’s music, even if their meetings are fully enjoyable and organic, having nothing of a pure mashup, they are far from a full, complete integration of their directions and further developments of composition and improvisation.

Elvin Jones and Eric Dolphy
“That's got to be Eric Dolphy - nobody else could sound that bad! The next time I see him I'm going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he's ridiculous. He's a sad motherfucker. […] It's a sad record, and it's the record company's fault again. I didn't like the trumpet player's tone, and he don't do nothing. The running is all right if you're going to play that way, like Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan; but you've got to inject something, and you've got to have the rhythm section along; you just can't keep on playing all eighth notes. The piano player's sad. You have to think when you play; you have to help each other - you just can't play for yourself. You've got to play with whomever you're playing. If I'm playing with Basie, I'm going to try to help what he's doing - that particular feeling.” 
(Miles Davis on Eric Dolphy Mary Ann, from the album Far Cry - Blindfold test by Leonard Feather, on Downbeat, June 1964)

Miles Davis with Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums
It is improper to say that Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy never met musically, or that they were two complete different worlds. Ron Carter, Davis bassist on his second quintet, played cello on Out There. On Dolphy’s recognized masterpiece Out To Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964), the drummer is Tony Williams – as on Andrew Hill Point of Departure, another recognized milestone of Bue Note's mid-'60s modernistic approach to post-bop. And Herbie Hancock is on piano on the previous year live album The Illinois Concert (Blue Note, 1963).

Thelonious Monk at the Town Hall, NY, 1959
On a book published in Italy on 2004 (“Tender Warrior – L’eredità di Eric Dolphy”, 2004), Italian journalist Claudio Sessa made a brilliant comparison between Dolphy and Thelonious Monk: “Monk is for bebop what Dolphy was to free jazz; both are substantially foreigners to the ‘genres’ they are generally associated with, even if they use some grammar elements and above all they love to work side by side with their major representative figures, recognizing their instrumental and expressive abilities, compatibles with their difficult aesthetics.”. Miles Davis reenactment of ‘Round About Midnight’ on his first 1954 Columbia record testify a similar effort to push himself ahead of the common bebop aesthetics and chops, a common ground that is really helpful to understand, through a comparison of the way Davis and Dolphy were using the same sidemen, their further developments.

Take for instance Eighty One, from Miles Davis E.S.P. album (Columbia, 1965), that is also the starting point for Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage composition. At this moment in time, Davis’ music is developing involving rhythm shiftings, and if on Nefertiti, a couple of years later, his trumpet and Wayne Shorter’s tenor saxophone are repeating the melody, while drums, piano and bass are drawing continuously changing layers of different colors, anticipating the innovations that will lead him to develop a music in which rhythm patterns and their permutations will definitely replace harmony and melody as its primal coordinates the same way composer Karlheinz Stockhausen did with his Telemusik and Mixtur, on this 1965 piece Tony Williams rhythmic shiftings between bogaloo and swing, over which Davis draw his statements passing sinuously through them, are an anticipation of those further developments.

Five years before, on August 15, 1960, Eric Dolphy, Ron Carter on cello, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Roy Haynes recorded at Van Gelder Studio Out There, second Dolphy’s album as a leader. While the previous Outward Bound (Prestige, 1960) was still featuring the standard bebop line up (two horns, bass, drums and piano), containing also some standards as On Green Dolphin Street and Glad to be Unhappy, its follow up features four original compositions, mingusian Eclipse, Out There composed by both multireedist and bassist, Randy Weston’s Sketches of Melba and Hale Smith’s – a composer Dolphy was particularly impressed with since when playing with Chico Hamilton – Feathers, gifted by a guitar-like cello accompanying the flute.

If with the previous record Dolphy still showed to own a practice of harmonic intervals that is a full octave wider than Charlie Parker’s, gaining because of his restructuralist attitude  comparisons by music journalists with Ornette Coleman he would be bug with very soon, Out There sees Cuernavaca’s born bassist influence becoming heavy, without the album balance being compromise. One month before, on July 13, Dolphy was playing at the Antibes Jazz Festival in Juan-Les-Pins, France, with a quintet featuring Mingus, Ted Curson on trumpet, Booker Ervin on tenor, Dennie Richmond on drums and featuring Bud Powell on piano as special guest, anticipating with his bass clarinet solo on What Love his spectacularly fitting, abstract, harsh, abrasive and almost humorous approach to the October 20 sessions issued by Candid on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.

Clifford Jordan, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Dannie Richmond, 1964
Sparse tracks of this approach are available through second Dolphy’s effort as a leader on The Baron, a composition dedicated to the fellow, with Haynes and Duvivier pulsing around a vamp figure while Eric’s bass clarinet and Carter’s arco are following each other. Eclipse, a composition Mingus recorded for the first time on a 1953 Debut album, was originally written for Billie Holiday as a response to Strange Fruit; refused by the singer, the piece is melodically convoluted, and reminds of Schoenberg’s chromaticisms. In his entirety, Out There is a fearless and atypical exploration of tonality since the opening, daring title-track thorugh the lyrical, gritty harshness of Feathers’ intro.

“There is so much to be gained by examining Eric Dolphy specifically as a composer. […] Certainly, his efforts as an improviser and instrumental performer are interwoven, and ultimately inseparable, with his activities in composition. […] he worked with a remarkably broad vocabulary, […] His compositions show arguably a greater interest the potential of form and structure than that of non-structured environments.” 
(Graham Connah, Eric Dolphy, The Composer)

Born in Los Angeles, a city that since the end of WWII hosted composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinskji, in his youth Eric Dolphy shared a junior college bandstand with minimalist composer La Monte Young. In his compositions he was taking the classic blues and AABA forms together with twelve-tone row and odd metered repeating vamps. G.W., from Outward Bound (Prestige, 1960) opens with a major 7th interval, resulting from a combination of an A-flat in the bass with a G played by alto sax and a F-sharp played by trumpet.

A polychord, or a standard major chord with an extra dissonant note, an exploration of unorthodox harmonies putting him on the same level of George Russell and Don Ellis in a period in which Ornette Coleman was putting the stress on the primacy of melody. Dolphy on his own, as Graham Connah underlined in his writing, is something of an ‘expansionist’, using intervals paying attention to their invertability and multifunctionality, and at the same time an indicator of his interest in the sounds of nature, as clearly audible by the way he plays the flute.

Influenced also by Italian contemporary flutist Severino Gazzelloni, met during Darmstadt summer courses and one of the favorite interpreters of composer Luciano Berio – we’re on the ground of post-serialism, with Berio’s 1958 Sequenza for solo flute as one of its accomplished, virtuosistic examples – Dolphy’s interest in free jazz, orchestral development of modality – see Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961), and contemporary avant garde music shows a restless and feverish research for the right instrument to express his music in the most proper way: “I want to say more on my horn, than I ever could through ordinary speech”.

Founded in NYC in 1960 as subsidiary of Cadence, and featuring writer and civil libertarian NatHenthoff as A&R manager and co-designer for the album covers with photographer Frank Gauna, Candid Label was the pure expression of the jazz avant-garde and of the civil right movements of the decade. Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now! Suite, Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy important albums were documented as Abbey Lincoln, Booker Little, Booker Ervin efforts, before Candid’s closing in 1961. Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (Candid, 1960) can be considered as an important, accomplished step ahead in the development of bassist approach to small combos as Atlantic 1956 Pithecanthropus Erectus

While the latter was characterized by altoist Jackie Mc Lean as Mingus creative and fulfilling alter ego, listening to the former is clearly evident that Eric Dolphy changed over; if the transfiguration of a classic Gershwin tune as A Foggy Day (In San Francisco) on the 1956 record features the two horns mimicking the traffic of the Big Apple, on the independently recorded new album the standard What is this Thing called Love becomes What Love, whose pairing melody by Ted Curson and Dolphy develops into a meditative, Spanish-tiged lyrical trumpet solo, surrounded by bass and alto clarinet counterpoint, before being driven into one of the Mingus' favorite treatments. 

Tempo suddenly fastens and then freezes, or stops, leaving the soloists free in turn to insert diverting phrases, short, ironic quotes out of different songs, or affordances typical of Mingus modus operandi in which some phrases are taken from one section into another, and one of the most vivid dialogues between Dolphy and Mingus, both trying to imitate the human voice.

Folk Forms, at his second recording after the three months before performance featured on Live at the Antibes (posthumously issued by Atlantic in 1979 and presenting a still progressing integration between the two musicians moods and characters), makes clear Mingus idea of polyphony, that similarly to the New Orleans’ doesn’t have a primary reference voice and is overflowing straight to the solos, always developed as a dialogue or having another instrument on the background. Not by chance the twos were so much similar that with time their performances together will be more and more deeply marked by an almost telepathic feeling and aim sharing.

Two months after this sessions, and Eric Dolphy is taking part, accompanied by Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, bassists Scott La Faro and Charlie Haden, and with Ed Backwell and Billy Higgins behind the drums, to the A&R Studio terms that will lead to Ornette Coleman’s masterpiece Free Jazz, issued by Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun brothers label on September 1961.

Originally provided by a beautiful clapper cover containing a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s White Light, the 37 minutes of collective improvisation on the record have more than a similarity with the painter’s dripping techniques. Pollock used to let the colors flow directly from the brushes on the canvas layed down to the floor, trying to give a balance to what was under his direct control – his body, and the dripping itself, the gravity and the way the canvas was soaking the color.

During the sessions, Ornette Coleman divided the musicians in two quartets, taking Cherry, LaFaro and Higgins by his side, while prividing before playing the musicians some reference points through which let the music flow. As Gunther Schuller explains in his liner notes for the 1998 reissue of the record, Free Jazz is composed by six major sections flowing without interruption. Coleman, in order to lead each section, devised three types of ideas: “1) a brassy, atonal polyphonic flourish, heard at the very beginning of the performance and again several times toward the end; 2) a sustained atonal, multivoiced choralelike series of notes; 3) a unison ensemble line […] the musicians were admonished to avoid any recognizable elements sneaking in – tune fragments, quotations, tonal reminiscences, familiar riffs”.

Don Cherry with Ornette Coleman at the Five Spots, November 1959
While every musician is at the same time leading and supporting the music – what Ornette referred to as ‘harmonic unison’ – with the bassist walking on the middle (LaFaro) and low (Haden) registries, listening to the first take of the recording it is clearly audible that, after the collective entry, Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet is more coherent with his usual harmonic and timbric clichés, as we heard through his previous works. Listening to the master take after that, it is almost surprising how much his inflections and tonalities have become almost ‘harmolodic’. His journey through music shows how much his penetrability to his partners music can easily and amazingly turn into suppleness without any lack of personal expressivity.

It’s time to get back some months. It is July 16, and Rudy Van Gelder is about to record live, at the Five Spot – the same club that in 1957 hosted Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, and first NY meetings of Don Cherry with Ornette in 1959 – a quintet featuring Eric Dolphy with Booker Little on trumpet, Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums.

Dolphy had left Mingus groups some months before, while his sharing the lights with Coltrane led both to be in charge with Down Beat columnist Leonard Feather of being ‘anti-jazz’. And if the two musicians will answer directly from the columns of April 1962 issue of the magazine, this summer 1961’s was Dolphy’s first regular enlistment since then. Shared through three different records by Prestige (At the Five Spot Voll. 1 & 2, and Memorial Album), the music contained here is an attempt to summarize Dolphy’s previous experiences nowadays.

Booker Little, that sadly died on October that same year and is present with Dolphy on his Candid’s Out Front (1961) release, was recognized, also for the efforts of Nat Hentoff, as an innovator on his instrument, through a practice of dissonance as a device to widen the boundaries of the sound itself, in that a huge influence on contemporary players like Roy Campbell. Mal Waldron, a long time associate with Billie Holiday and Charles Mingus, and later on widely appreciated as the perfect partner for Steve Lacy’s angular soprano saxophone, is playing here in a way that, since the opening Fire Waltz, a composition of his own, put him directly on the same lineage of Monk – another proof of his mastery is the piano itself, mostly out of tune, Mal ran into the club, but that through the decades has become one of the many delights of this recordings.

Ed Blackwell with Charlie Haden
Richard Davis (Ahmad Jamal, Don Shirley, Sarah Vaughan) will be present moreover on Dolphy’s masterpiece, Out To Lunch! and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1964). If his presence outside of the jazz world is guarantee through providing ‘the greatest bass ever hear on a rock album’ (Greil Marcus) to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, his activity will lead him to be teacher of William Parker, a solid reality of today’s avant garde jazz world. Through tracks like The Prophet, a composition from Dolphy’s first record as a leader – interesting the comparison with Roy Haynes melodic rendition of rhythms, and Little’s Aggression, Blackwell particular melting of African polyrhithms, New Orleans and bebop gives reason to Ornette Coleman in choosing him as first pulse of his arson records The Shape of Jazz to Come and This is Our Music (both Atlantic, 1960) and to trumpeter Don Cherry for the beautiful duet albums Mu 1st & 2nd part (BYG Actuel, 1969), in which the drummer deepend his coloristic approach to melody and rhythm through a broader use of small and ethnic percussions.

“Dolphy pursued freedom through a run in with a structure to prowl, to climb over, to shatter. The same with the rhythm” (Marcello Piras)

Related Discogarphy
John Coltrane, Africa/Brass (Impulse!, 1961)
John Coltrane, Impressions (Impulse!, 1961)
John Coltrane, Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!, 1961)
Eric Dolphy, Outward Bound (Prestige, 1960)
Eric Dolphy, Out There (Prestige, 1961)
Eric Dolphy, At the Five Spot, Vol.1 (Prestige, 1961)
Eric Dolphy, At the Five Spot, Vol. 2 (Prestige, 1961)
Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, Memorial Album (Prestige, 1961)
Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1961)
Charles Mingus, Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic, 1956)
Charles Mingus, Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus (Candid, 1960)
Charles Mingus, Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic, 1979)
Miles Davis, E.S.P. (Columbia, 1965)
Miles Davis, Nefertiti (Columbia, 1967)

Related Bibliography
Lewis Porter, John Coltrane His Life and Music (The Michigan American Music Series, 1998)
VA, Tender Warrior L’eredità Musicale di Eric Dolphy (Associazione Culturale Punta Giara, 2005)
Stefano Zenni, Charles Mingus Polifonie dell’Universo Afroamericano (Stampa Alternativa Nuovi Equilibri, 2002)

1 comment:

  1. Interessantissimo approfondimento, mi spiace averlo scoperto solo ora. È un piacere condividerlo sui miei canali social. Grazie!