A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

The publication late last year of the book Marlow Moss: A Forgotten Maverick (Hatje Cantz) was a long awaited (at least by me) rediscovery and confirmation of the exactingly abstract, engagingly subtle work of this unfashionable British artist (1889-1958). The reasons for her neglect? For one, she was one of the first artists to adopt – and create fascinating, mathematically-alert original analogies to – the extreme grid format of Piet Mondrian, whom she met in the 1920s, but which often led to her dismissal as an imitator. Secondly, she was a woman artist in a time when that was considered reason enough to be not taken seriously. And thirdly, as a woman who chose to create a masculine appearance and enter into a same-sex relationship, she drew the disdain of the largely still-Victorian minded British society. Nevertheless, the opportunity to now study an increased number of her paintings, reliefs, and sculptures reveals a thoughtful, thought-provoking artist who derived imaginative permutations and transformations of an advanced, yet seemingly rigid, structural and thematic system.

It’s arguable that there’s a fine line between dramatically extending an artistic principle into a radical reconceptualization of form and style – as did, say, Burgoyne Diller in response to Mondrian, and Marlow Moss’ more nuanced practice of crafting variations which redefine its components as intensely isolated fragments or abstracted details. When such individually determined devices of reduction, modification, and ornamentation are called into play, the dictates of form are susceptible, but never completely succumb, to the creative unpredictability of style. Which will, eventually, bring me to Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, and specifically Eric Dolphy.

When last we left the latter, four years ago (“A Fickle Sonance,” September 2014), the point being made was that our perspective of Dolphy’s singular style was a product of the context in which he performed – primarily music composed and arranged by others, with precious little of his own design. Certainly, as an instrumentalist of brilliant virtuosity and thrilling, adventurous improvisational concepts, his influence on bass clarinetists, flutists, and saxophonists, 54 years after his passing, has never been greater. Thus the recent release of Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance), though not occasioning a re-evaluation of Dolphy’s art, nevertheless is a welcome opportunity to refresh our experience through one of his rare, and lesser-known, sessions as a leader, with the unexpected bonus of previously unissued material.

A bit of backstory is necessary here. According to Resonance producer Zev Feldman, when Dolphy was about to leave for Europe to tour as part of the Charles Mingus group in April 1964, he gave his close friend, composer and teacher Hale Smith, a suitcase for safe-keeping, containing notes, scores, and tapes of music from various sources, including mono copies of his 1963 sessions (the exact dates are in dispute) from New York’s Music Makers Studio. Dolphy, of course, never returned, and Smith eventually brought the contents to the attention of flutist James Newton. The documents have since been placed in the Library of Congress, available for study, and some of the tapes found in the suitcase were released in 1987 as the Blue Note album Other Aspects. Curiously, it wasn’t until 2016 that Newton met with Feldman to audition and prepare selections from the 1963 sessions for release. Some of this music had been previously issued: four tracks (“Jitterbug Waltz,” “Music Matador,” “Love Me,” and “Alone Together”) as Conversations, initially on the obscure FM label (subsequently reissued by Douglas, Vee-Jay, Fontana, Archive of Jazz and Folk Music, Celluloid, and at least two other bootleg companies), and five tracks (“Burning Spear,” “Mandrake,” “Iron Man,” “Come Sunday,” and “Ode to Charlie Parker”) which had to wait until 1968 – four years after Dolphy’s death – because, according to the liner notes of the album Iron Man (originally on Douglas, and several labels since then), they were “considered too futuristic to put out at that time.” Resonance decided to reissue these nine tracks using the surviving mono copies (the original stereo tapes are unaccounted for and may have been destroyed in a fire), along with seven of the rediscovered alternate takes, two versions of an unreleased duet between Dolphy and bassist Richard Davis, and an unrelated 1964 performance corresponding to Dolphy’s participation in the avant-garde ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan (an alternate take of which had appeared on Other Aspects) – all told approximately 85 minutes of previously unheard Dolphy.

Despite their availability on so many legitimate and bogus record labels over the past decades, Conversations and Iron Man never secured a reputation equal to that of Dolphy’s earlier New Jazz/Prestige recordings, much less Out To Lunch (Blue Note), his most acclaimed album. In the case of Conversations, despite containing one improvisational masterpiece, Dolphy’s bass clarinet duet with bassist Richard Davis on “Alone Together,” the fault lies in the choice of material – the two ensemble tunes, Fats Waller’s lighthearted “Jitterbug Waltz” and Sonny Simmons’ Mexican-flavored romp “Music Matador,” both of which sound at odds with the experimental nature of Dolphy’s playing. Ironically, it is the so-called “futuristic” ensembles on Iron Man, with their dissonant clashes, open/modal harmonic options, and unusual timbres (at times combining flute, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon), which are more suitable vehicles not only for Dolphy but also the voracious attack of teenaged trumpeter Woody Shaw, making his recording debut, and vibist Bobby Hutcherson, fresh from a noteworthy appearance on Jackie McLean’s volatile One Step Beyond and just six months in advance of his first leader date. In hindsight, Dolphy’s own compositions here fit comfortably into the soon-to-be-iconic Blue Note modernist mode of the period – not only McLean’s date, but the genre-stretching, exploratory albums by Andrew Hill, Grachan Moncur III, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, and Sam Rivers, all recorded in 1963 and ‘64, often with interchangeable personnel. This is the direction that Dolphy’s own music was going, but the delayed release of Iron Man drained it of suspense and significance, in favor of the timely, emphatic Out To Lunch.

Having Conversations and Iron Man, with the addition of a few revealing alternates, brought to our attention again provides poignant evidence that Dolphy’s compositional ambitions were still in a formative stage when he died – there’s no telling where his interest in complex Indian rhythms and microtones, and the barely explored galaxy of contemporary classical music, would have taken him. However, the most valuable new performances here are the two solo alto sax alternate takes of “Love Me,” the two new bass clarinet/bass duets of “Muses for Richard Davis,” and the alternate take of “Alone Together” – in other words, examples of Dolphy the breathtaking, eloquent instrumentalist. These serve to remind us that, though identified and often criticized during his lifetime as a “New Thing” revolutionary and misrepresented as a free player, he, like Marlow Moss in her construction of spatial intervals and angular three-dimensional variations on Mondrian’s precedent, formulated an expansive, spontaneous style on the improvisational harmonic paradigm established by Charlie Parker. As he told Martin Williams, “I think of my playing as tonal. I play notes that would not ordinarily be said to be in a given key, but I hear them as proper. I don’t think I ‘leave the changes,’ as the expression goes; every note I play has some reference to the chords of the piece.”

Similarly, paralleling the artistic relationship between Burgoyne Diller and Marlow Moss, which started from a fixed point of influence and evolved into divergent theoretical perspectives, the styles of Dolphy and Ornette Coleman at one time exploited a common post-Parker sensibility. They knew each other in California as early as 1954, and discussed musical concepts. By 1958 their distinctive soloing nevertheless shared rhythmic contours and harmonic values. Compare, just for fun, Dolphy’s already characteristic solos on “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” while still with Chico Hamilton (The Original Ellington Suite, Pacific Jazz) and the large interval leaps, tonal cry, and flamboyant phrases of Ornette’s alto on “Invisible” or those in the pure bebop line “Chippie,” where his slightly sharp note choices hover precariously on the edges of pianist Walter Norris’ chords (Something Else, Contemporary). It wasn’t long before Ornette’s instinctive free expressionism pulled him away from Dolphy’s incisive formal transformations. One can easily imagine both agreeing with Marlow Moss’ belief, “Art is as Life forever in the state of Becoming.”

Art Lange©2018

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