A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

From April 10 to April 29, 1964, the Charles Mingus band toured throughout Scandinavia and Europe. It was an exhausting schedule; they had only two days off, played 20 concerts, and during a performance in Paris on April 17 trumpeter Johnny Coles collapsed and needed to be hospitalized as the result of a stomach ulcer arising from a previous operation. In addition, at some point early on Eric Dolphy expressed to Mingus his intention of leaving the group and remaining in Europe after the tour concluded. Perhaps as a symbolic gesture, Mingus had the band play a piece that came to be known as “So Long Eric” at practically each concert. During a rehearsal for the April 13 Stockholm gig (which was filmed by Swedish Public Television and is available as part of Mingus Live in ‘64, a Jazz Icons DVD), he made his feelings known for the record. He said, “Eric, I’m going to miss your ass over here. How long do you think you’re going to stay? You thought about it?” Dolphy, obviously uncomfortable, responded quietly “I don’t know. Not long.” But Mingus wouldn’t let it go. “What’s not long? What’s not long?” “Maybe a year. Not more than a year,” Dolphy conceded. The truth turned out to be much more painful, and final. Dolphy died in Berlin just two months later due to complications from what was later generally acknowledged to be undiagnosed diabetes. He was 36.

What’s sometimes lost in the ongoing, deserved esteem in which Dolphy’s legacy is held is the fact that except for a handful of youthful big band sideman recordings (one a seat in Mingus’ 1949 West Coast so-called 22-Piece Be Bop Band), his entire recording career lasted a mere six years – four, if you omit his eclectic but less-than-compelling two-year tenure with Chico Hamilton’s chamber jazz group. In those final four years he was responsible for only five full-fledged studio dates of his own (not counting those co-credited with saxophonist Ken McIntyre or the Latin Jazz Quintet, or originally under the leadership of Mal Waldron or Ron Carter and later reissued under Dolphy’s name), all stylistically – though not necessarily conventionally – in the post-bop bag. Though he wrote often engagingly quirky, if not novel or ambitious, tunes, he didn’t think of himself as a composer but a player, and if this was all he had done, his reputation as a phenomenally exciting, intensely exploratory improviser would still be secure. But of course, the full measure of Dolphy’s brilliance can only be experienced through his participation in the music of others. And the flood gates opened suddenly, without warning. In 1960, after taping his debut as a leader for New Jazz, we find him in the company of Charles Mingus, John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, Ornette Coleman, and Oliver Nelson; he crossed paths with Bud Powell, Roy Eldridge, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and even cashed a paycheck for a Sammy Davis Jr. session. Thereafter, though much of 1961 was given over to his involvement with John Coltrane, as an avalanche of bootleg live recordings attest, he freelanced, thither and yon, including memorable one-shot encounters with George Russell (their “Round Midnight” might be the quintessential recording of Monk’s classic), Andrew Hill, and Max Roach, until the ill-fated reunion with Mingus – and nearly every stop on that trip seems to have been recorded. Despite the brevity of his life, there’s a lot of great Dolphy on disc for us to savor.

But what is our perspective of Eric Dolphy 50 years after his death? For one thing, the musical context has not changed; there have been no significant alterations or innovations in jazz, free jazz, or other primarily improvised musics over that period, which means that we are able to hear him as part of a continuous present. Unlike, say, a Sidney Bechet or Paul Desmond, his specialness is not rooted as a memory of a particular time, place, or style; rather, the specific broad harmonic focus, jolting rhythmic intensity, and instrumental tonal qualities that we identify with him – and made him sound like no other player then and now – are as fresh and shocking today because we are accustomed to hearing improvised music that is based on the same premises with which he worked. Indeed, consider the line of “cutting-edge” alto saxophonists, now spanning several generations, from Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe to Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and Steve Lehman among others, who have developed a personal voice while working with music that is no more modern or original than what Dolphy was creating in the early ‘60s. (The exceptions – Braxton, Threadgill, and who else? – speak for themselves.) Is there an improvising bass clarinetist or flutist today that does not owe him a stylistic debt? And yet, is it possible to define the music of Eric Dolphy the way we can define and categorize the music of equally distinctive improvisers like Lee Konitz, or Art Pepper, or Jimmy Lyons?

Here’s where one of the ironies of Dolphy’s career kicks in. Though the jazz press categorized him as a member of the “New Thing” – that is, the avant-garde – during his lifetime, and it is certainly true that in the urgency and harmonic extravagance of his solos he attempted to extend the parameters of whatever the particular musical setting was, that label has more to do with the musicians with whom he associated than what he actually played. That is, the perception of his playing was often relative to the context of the musical setting. For example, if we isolate him in his most important, longstanding collaborations, playing the music of Coltrane and Mingus, we find that although his improvisational point of view remains conceptually consistent on his own terms in both instances, it fulfills a conservative function in Coltrane’s group and a radical one in that of Mingus. At this point in time, Coltrane was beginning down a path which would enable him to escape the limitations, musical and vibrational/spiritual, of chord-based improvising, and yet Dolphy’s solos alongside him, even in their most extreme chromaticism, remained rooted in chordal relationships (remember that after Dolphy departed early in 1962 and only sporadically played with him thereafter, Coltrane didn’t add a permanent second saxophonist to the band until the pitch-melting Pharoah Sanders joined in 1965). Whereas Mingus had previously used Dolphy’s implied freedom of phrasing to venture into open, Ornette-inspired non-chordal episodes with his pianoless 1960 quartet, by ‘64 he was thinking more along extended and varied compositional directions – “Meditations on Integration,” another constant on the Scandinavian/European tour, was a case in point – and Dolphy’s freest (though never completely free) solos would occasionally lead the ensemble (especially Jaki Byard’s piano accompaniments and Dannie Richmond’s percussive punctuation) to momentarily jettison harmonic constraints and bar lines, but it’s obvious watching the filmed concerts that Mingus preferred getting back to basics.

Such conflicting perspectives didn’t seem to affect Dolphy, if he was even aware of them; in large part, I think this is because he was always looking to expand his environment, to broaden his musical knowledge, to find new musical challenges and experiences. We know he was investigating the additive rhythms and microtonal harmonies of Indian music by 1960, and that classical music had been a large part of his teenage lessons. In fact, his involvement with classical music throughout his lifetime may lead us to some fascinating speculation about his unrealized future. We know he was close friends with the African American composer Hale Smith, whose music straddled both jazz and classical concerns, and he recorded Smith’s yearning ballad “Feather” in 1960 on his second album, Out There. Smith, it has also been reported, took Dolphy to be coached by Edgard Varèse for a performance of his solo flute composition Density 21.5. He no doubt had a deep awareness of the contemporary flute repertory, witness the two solo pieces “Inner Flight #1” and “Inner Flight #2” from 1960 (Other Aspects, Blue Note), and his dedication of the tune “Gazzelloni” to Severino Gazzelloni, the period’s foremost classical and New Music flute virtuoso. Gunther Schuller, who met Dolphy through Charles Mingus, was his primary source of classical gigs, such as those with Orchestra U.S.A., and elsewhere Dolphy’s playing elevates Schuller’s pieces like Night Music, Densities, Abstraction, and especially the Variants on a Theme by Thelonious Monk (versions of all of which may be found on Vintage Dolphy, GM). But even more provocative are the indications that Dolphy had commenced studies (exactly if, when, and for how long has not yet been thoroughly documented) with composer Stefan Wolpe. At various times Wolpe gave lessons to not only budding composers like Morton Feldman and Ralph Shapey, but jazz musicians Tony Scott, Eddie Sauter, Don Ellis, John Carisi, and, in the late ‘40s, on the recommendation of Gil Evans, to a pre-Lydian Concept George Russell. It may have been Russell who led Dolphy to Wolpe when Dolphy, likely wishing to expand his knowledge of Russell’s own theoretical advances, participated in his 1961 group. It is tantalizing to imagine the long-term effect an interaction with Wolpe’s attitudes and music – which can be dazzling in its harmonic complexity yet largely intuitive in its abstract rhythms and formal design – might have had on Dolphy.

Several sources have related that he was writing a string quartet when he died. Could this have been under Wolpe’s influence? What would Dolphy the composer, especially 10 or even 20 years on, still only in his 50s, have sounded like? Of course we’ll never know, but the adventurous German alto saxophonist/clarinetist Silke Eberhard – who, with pianist Aki Takase, previously released two discs of Ornette Coleman compositions rearranged and reconceptualized (on the Intakt label) – may provide us with a few imaginative, if wildly speculative, possibilities. Announced on her website (http://silkeeberhard.com) is a completion and “continuation” of Dolphy’s “Love Suite” string quartet, which she has orchestrated for trumpet, trombone, tuba, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, and electronics, to be performed this Fall throughout Germany, including the Berlin Jazz Festival. Meanwhile, her 2010 recording of The Complete Works of Eric Dolphy (Jazzwerkstatt), with a tight-knit wind quartet called Potsa Lotsa, consisting of herself, Patrick Braun (tenor saxophone), Nikolaus Neuser (trumpet), and Gerhard Gschlößl (trombone), allows us to experience Dolphy’s jazz-oriented tunes from a composer’s viewpoint. Placing their emphasis on melodic intrigue, the quartet, sans rhythm section, exchanges Dolphy’s characteristic attack and angular insistence for episodes of counterpoint, instrumental color, and fluid development of themes. Together, they become a conversational choir of quasi-Ellingtonian harmonies or minimalist looping; individually, they splinter off and shuffle or crumple their lines, and contribute solos that fit the concept without trying to recreate Dolphy’s own sound or sensibility. (As if that were possible.) As might be expected, some of the arrangements sound studied, and lackluster in comparison to the energized originals; nevertheless, it’s an admirable effort that animates and illuminates Dolphy’s music in surprising ways. Do Eberhard’s evocative options give us any insight to new directions that Dolphy himself might have explored? Probably not, but given his insatiable curiosity and remarkable talent, what his music might have sounded like had he lived is anybody’s guess.

Art Lange©2014

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