The Best of Eric Dolphy

Prestige, USA - CD

This year, I saw the first Christmas decorations on October 12. Didn't help my mood fair much. Not long after, I also heard a soundalike John Coltrane sax/bass/drums/ piano quartet lending a certain legitimacy to the holiday Martha Stewart houseware/ knickknacks/furnishings collection ads for K Mart. Sine comentaris, but the TV's been off a lot lately in this house.

Thankfully, there is one (among others) jazz musician who will not allow for commercialization of this sort or any other, and that is the late Eric Dolphy. That he's not around any more is no doubt a factor (though this situation would seem not to do the same for 'Trane), but let's also consider the fount of his inspiration. He had some but not a lot of use for standards, unlike Coltrane early on, and Dolphy didn't essay blues phrases as Ornette Coleman did and does; rather, and you can hear this in his tunes and his solos very clearly, he was a theorist in how a line of notes was best constructed, whatever the purpose.

He introduced a sort of hybrid serialism into the music unlike nearly any other musician (though the very estimable Cecil Taylor has often appeared to have such leanings). Even Anthony Braxton, as close to Dolphy in influence as anyone is on the bass clarinet (though resident NYC legend Mike Lytle should certainly get a slice of the credit too for keeping said instrument out of the Metropolitan Museum Dead Letter Office), has largely composed with mathematical models. As a result, his music will often sound alien because he has invented his own logic. Even so, that logic is a constant, however oppositional. In contrast, Dolphy would talk about birds and how they have, as he put it, 'notes between our notes,' or his fave avant-gardists, or the South Asian music traditions he enjoyed such as dhuns and ragas. So even today his melodies have odd unpredictable spaces in them, even if you've heard the performances before; intriguing unto fascinating for the careful listener! You might say he constructed a cloud of possible notes and directions of progression to the next note, out of which his work arose.

Try these gems, recorded by Rudy van Gelder (where would we be without you, Mijnheer Van G.?) between 1960 and 1961at various venues, live, in the studio, and with any number of fine supporting and co-lead players: something clearly rattles around in the music of this CD that is not a comfortable fit to our Western understanding. Of course in those not-so-dear dead days (give me the present any time, it's more conducive to change), many listeners pilloried Dolphy for playing 'anti-jazz' (you'll notice nobody ever tried to define just what that was), excoriated 'Trane for having the nerve to hire Dolphy, et ad extreme nauseum. Even the one and only Mingus, in what was probably the only unhip thing he ever did (well, there was that time he deprived Juan Tizol of his chair via diverting means...), demanded Dolphy remove 'that silly-looking thing' (his bass clarinet) from the bandstand before a gig. But Dolphy would not take no for an answer, and his Village Vanguard stand with Coltrane's quartet in 1961 (out in encyclopedic form on Impulse!) drove much-needed railroad spikes into any number of heads. To Dolphy, and to many others, the music had to continue to involve greater and greater possibilities if it wasn't going to end up in... well, I don't want to get in any trouble here. Let's just say the Met Museum again.

Starting at the end of the CD as opposed to the beginning (because that's what's on the player right now as I type this), a quintet of Mal Waldron (piano), Booker Little (trumpet), Richard Davis (bass) and Ed Blackwell (drums) is heard on two lengthy live workouts at the Five Spot in NYC on 11-16-61: 'smokin' is not the word. Towards the end of Waldron's "Status Seeking" Blackwell cuts Little dead on a series of fours-trading and simply will not stop reeling off manic percussion patterns and interlocking riffs and rolls until it would appear the bouncer will have to cart him offstage. Finally convinced he must let the song end, a near Dixieland- like passage ensues and Blackwell again shoves everybody aside, but it's only to give Davis room for a bravura setpiece. The head arrives just in time before the sun comes up. Maybe. And in Little's original "Booker's Waltz" (same gig) it is made clear that the person with the most to lose this fine evening was Waldron because at minute 9:05 the piano starts clanking oddly. It sounds for all the world like somebody's sheet music has fallen into the sound chamber and Waldron (soloing at the time, but that's why it happened, right?) bravely mashes on while for all I know some kind soul (maybe Dolphy) is trying to get it out of there without having his fingers taken off. The problem solved, Waldron outdoes himself yet again. The play between Little's open, darting horn and Dolphy's more introverted bass clarinet is simply delicious.

Dolphy spent quite a lot of time in Europe before his untimely passing in 1964, and his comfort with European musicians (easy to understand considering his seeming lack of emphasis on blues mirrored his European hosts' own) shows in a cheery workthrough of Rodgers and Hart's "Glad To Be Unhappy" with the man on flute and some fine collaboration from Bent Axen (piano), Jorn Elniff (drums), and Erik Moseholm (bass). The flute is by nature an easier sound on the ear, and anybody who wants to know what Dolphy was all about is urged to start here. The odd leaps in cadence, the broken and restitched melodies, and the modulation among nearby keys make this a textbook performance by a fellow who carefully never wrote one.

Elsewhere, "On Green Dolphin Street" has a bouncy WEST SIDE STORY lilt to it until Freddie Hubbard straps on the mute and recalls Miles (as who could not, given Davis all but retired the tune for all intents with his Sextet in 1958) with a crisp statement of the first half of the theme. Dolphy's bass clarinet break frees him from the chords almost right off with a certain reverence, passing the melody on both sides with quick leaps, circling back to revisit those sections of the chord structure that interest him, and then dashing under them to head back out into the space in front of the melody. I can't explain it any better. 'Trane took chords apart and repositioned their components like an expert loom operator; Dolphy is more the 3D chess player. One has to hear his position in the piece at any given time (and only repeat listenings will do that) to 'get' his aim. Probably for that reason, records may have been more his medium than live gigs, until one got to know his music well.

Another bass clarinet performance here is the lovely "Serene," scripted for cello (Ron Carter), bass (a delightfully 'on' George Duvivier) and drums (Roy Haynes). Cool grouping, and you'll find it on the appropriately named OUTWARD BOUND.

With the alto, Dolphy had a nasal, maneuverable tone that belied some debt (but not much by 1960) to Charlie Parker. "Far Cry" has a certain hypertrophy that fondly builds on Parker's own "Ah Leu Cha," while "Fire Waltz" (also with Freddie H., who labors admirably to keep these guys within the confines of Earth orbit, succeeding most of the time) possesses a magisterial pre-'free-bop' melody which nods to such current steady lights as Luther Thomas, Jim Gailloretto and Colin Stranahan. Yes, the open-ended sense of structure that pervaded Dolphy's music does live on. Sad to say, a lot of the fellows carrying it on don't get much work either. Can we try to change that?

I've gone on far too long (haven't even mentioned a hot take of "MIss Ann"... oh, well), and let me apologize to the inestimable and very necessary Haybert and Patricia here at Jazz Now for so doing, but Eric Dolphy deserves the memory and the e-column inches. He was very much a polymath and his method remains, I believe, to be fully understood even now. It would be really cool if he were still here, salting our brains with new chords and new methods to play well-known ones. To say nothing of continuing to outrage the easily outrageable, which is good fun and only slightly illegal. Or so they'll tell you.

by Ken Egbert