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Posts tagged ‘Eric Dolphy’

Eric Dolphy, still out there

Eric Dolphy - Photo by © Hans Harzheim

When I think about Eric Dolphy, I wonder what he would be doing now, had he not died of undiagnosed diabetes in a Berlin hospital in 1964, aged 36. Quite a lot of the more adventurously astringent music to be heard today at Cafe Oto in London, The Stone in New York or Sowieso in Berlin could be described as Dolphyesque, in that it launches itself from a jazz platform in search of a relationship with other idioms, in particular the techniques of various forms of modern classical music.

He would have turned 90 this year, and there’s no doubt that he would have used those lost years productively, extending his already formidable vocabulary on alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute, continuing to develop a personal improvising voice that — like his great contemporary Ornette Coleman, but in a very different way — moved beyond the influence of Charlie Parker, and exploring the possibilities of new instrumental groupings and compositional techniques. Just imagine a Dolphy quintet album with Ambrose Akinmusire, Alexander Hawkins, Thomas Morgan and Tyshawn Sorey!

A new release from Resonance Records provides a fine illustration of the things he was up to in the couple of years before he died, and of how modern he still sounds. After an apprenticeship with Chico Hamilton, Dolphy came to the attention of the jazz world primarily through his work with John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, but he found a path to his own music, to be heard on such albums as Out There (Prestige, 1960), the marvellous series of quintet recordings at the Five Spot with Booker Little from 1961 (also Prestige), and the celebrated Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964).

The Resonance collection, called Musical Prophet and currently available as a triple vinyl set, is based on two days of studio sessions supervised by the producer Alan Douglas for his own label in New York over two days in July 1963. The sessions featured various instrumental combinations from a pool of mostly young players: Woody Shaw (trumpet), Sonny Simmons (alto), Prince Lawsha (flute), Clifford Jordan (tenor), Bobby Hutcherson (vibes), Richard Davis or Eddie Kahn (bass), J. C. Moses or Charles Moffett (drums), and the veteran Garvin Bushell on bassoon. It seems to have been typical of Dolphy’s generosity of spirit that he made solo space for other musicians who played his instruments (Simmons in particular), and featured compositions other than his own.

Two albums, Conversations and Iron Man, were issued from these sessions, but the new set also contains outtakes of all the original tracks, and more besides. Given the relatively small size of Dolphy’s output during his short recording career, anything new is particularly welcome, and it’s a treat to hear — for instance — a pithier version of Lawsha’s Caribbean-inflected “Music Matador”, two extra takes of the solo alto treatment of the standard “Love Me”, and the astonishingly inventive solos by Dolphy and the 18-year-old Shaw on an alternate take of “Mandrake” that is stronger than the one originally selected.

There’s also a bonus track from another session: a 15-minute piece called “A Personal Statement”, originally included under the title “Jim Crow” on an album culled from random tapes left by Dolphy with some friends and released by Blue Note in 1987 under the title Other Aspects. It now transpires that this striking piece was written by the pianist Bob James for his own trio, plus Dolphy and a counter-tenor, David Schwarz, and recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in March 1964, shortly before Dolphy left for what turned out to be his final trip to Europe. The fact that Dolphy didn’t write it, and that James would soon (after recording a trio album for ESP) turn away from the avant-garde towards an engagement with the more commercial form of jazz that made him famous, doesn’t make it any less interesting; it also means that Dolphy recognised the promise in these young musicians, who were students at the time.

For me, however, the heart of this set is the second of its six sides, entirely devoted to duets between Dolphy’s bass clarinet and the bass of Richard Davis: two virtuosi in conversation. The first of the three tracks, the originally released 13-minute take of “Alone Together”, is a known masterpiece (and there is another take, previously unreleased, on the final disc). The second and the third pieces, two takes of a composition by the pianist Roland Hanna called “Muses for Richard Davis”, slowly explore the timbral relationship between the two instruments with enormous care, subtlety and beauty. You can ignore the track breaks and treat the side as one half-hour piece: half an hour of genius.

* Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 Studio Session is out now as a vinyl limited edition and will be released on CD on January 25. The photograph above, by the German jazz photographer Hans Harzheim, appears in the lavish booklet, along with the work of Francis Wolff, Val Wilmer and other photographers, and many essays and interviews with musicians whose lives Eric Dolphy touched.

Between the world and the Black Panthers

Out to Lunch

Others will be better qualified to talk about the substance of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson’s documentary, which is currently showing in London. I found it extremely moving. There’s an initial sense of exhilaration at the spectacle of the human spirit responding to adversity with pride, resilience and creativity, only for that spirit to be crushed by the relentless efficiency of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI.

Nelson modulates the tone of the film to match its narrative arc with great sensitivity, and that is where the soundtrack plays its part. At the start of the story we see the Chi-Lites singing “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” in ruffled costumes on Soul Train and hear Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough For You”, Philadelphia International’s most confrontational moment. These are reminders of how the ideas represented by the Panthers were able to gatecrash mainstream culture. Later the musical backdrop is supplied by the stripped-down street-funk of the early ’70s (“Express Yourself” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band being a good example). At the close, with the Panthers’ unity and sense of purpose destroyed by police bullets (notably in the assassination of Fred Hampton, the eloquent, charismatic 21-year-old who Hoover feared would become the movement’s “messiah”) and internal rivalries (the post-prison Huey P. Newton versus the exiled Eldridge Cleaver), the profound darkening of the mood is expressed through the voice of Gil Scott-Heron, singing “Winter in America”.

I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a recent best-seller which takes the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, relating Coates’s own experiences as a black boy growing up in America. His grandfather was a research librarian at Howard University in Washington DC, with a profound love of books: “…all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room…” His parents were radicals: “We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.” His father had been a captain in the Black Panther Party.

The book is a brilliant analysis of the journey taken by several generations of African Americans, always facing the same enemy. Coates was born in 1975: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,” he writes, “was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” He was 11 years old when another boy pulled a gun on him. His son’s reality is the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nelson’s film contains another music-related moment that made me catch my breath. We see photographs of the room in a Panther house on Chicago’s West Side where Fred Hampton was gunned down by police in December 1969, its layout revealed to them by an FBI informant. Amid the blood-spattered debris lying on the bedroom floor, it’s possible to glimpse the sleeve of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. On its appearance in 1964, Dolphy’s album represented a high point in the African American research project that jazz had become. It’s still being analysed and copied today. And to me it’s an affirmation of some sort that Out to Lunch was part of the soundtrack of that Panther household, and — or so we may infer — of Fred Hampton’s short life.

The precious legacy of Booker Little

Booker Little:Max Roach

The four studio albums recorded under the Memphis-born trumpeter Booker Little’s name between 1958 and 1961 were issued by four different labels. It’s always been my feeling that if he had signed a contract with Blue Note Records early in his career, his reputation today would more than match that of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard or Donald Byrd. But they did and he didn’t, and after his untimely death from uraemia, a kidney disease, at the age of 23, the piecemeal nature of his recorded output somehow prevented him from acquiring the stature he deserved.

For many years those four albums were hard to find and expensive to acquire. You might have gone without a few meals to buy one. Now, thanks to European copyright laws, all four are available in a single 2CD package for which I paid £12 the other day. Those copyright laws are problematic in some respects, but when they make it possible for independent companies to reissue music like this, in which the corporate successors to the original labels have seldom shown any constructive interest, it’s very hard to argue against them, so I won’t. The original albums in question were called Booker Little 4 & Max Roach (United Artists, recorded 1958), Booker Little (Time, 1960), Out Front (Candid, 1961), and Booker Little and Friend (Bethlehem, 1961). The package in which they are assembled, titled Complete Recordings: Master Takes and issued on the American Jazz Classics label, has been put together with evident care, reproducing the original sleeves and notes, with full recording details and extra pictures.

The first of them reminds us that Little came to prominence as a member of the Max Roach Quintet, whom he joined just after his 20th birthday, following studies at the Chicago Conservatory. He made several albums with that band, and his qualities as a soloist were obvious from the start: his clean articulation, bright, burnished tone, rhythmic agility and harmonic acuity made him the obvious successor to Clifford Brown. And at a time when skilled hard-bop trumpeters were not exactly thin on the ground, his playing was immediately identifiable.

The Time album is by a quartet, with Wynton Kelly or Tommy Flanagan on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, and it still sounds pristine. But the remaining albums are the real jewels, since they place his improvisations in the context of a developing compositional gift. They feature sextets, both including the trombonist Julian Priester and the pianist Don Friedman, with Out Front also including Eric Dolphy and Max Roach while Booker Little and Friend (a coy reference to his trumpet) features George Coleman and another great drummer, Pete LaRoca. Little’s 14 tunes on these albums are distinguished by a gift for lyricism that was not always to be found in the composers of the post-bop era; perhaps the nearest equivalent would be the great Benny Golson, who also achieved a song-like quality in his themes for hard-driving horns-and-rhythm combos. Little, though, was a more sophisticated thinker than Golson. In pieces as breathtakingly gorgeous and structurally fascinating as “Forward Flight”, “Strength and Sanity” and “Moods in Free Time”, written in his very early twenties, there are unmissable signs of boundless potential.

His partnership with Dolphy would no doubt have borne further fruit. They were ideal partners, utterly dissimilar in instrumental style but clearly on the same musical and intellectual wavelength, as can be heard on Dolphy’s Far Cry, recorded for Prestige in December 1960, and in the three volumes of live recordings by their quintet, taped in July 1961, just three months before his death, and released as Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot (now also available in a complete edition, from Essential Jazz Classics). Among the last things he played on, as a sideman, were John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and Max Roach’s Percussion: Bitter Sweet. Wherever jazz was heading in that turbulent and exhilarating era, he was going to be part of it.

We’ll never know what he might have achieved in the years that a fatal illness denied him, but the four albums under his own name — brimming with the amazing clarity of his playing and a talent for exploiting the resources of a small group — are evidence of a remarkable artist at work. It’s a legacy that all jazz fans should know about.

* The uncredited photograph of Booker Little (left) and Max Roach is taken from the booklet accompanying the American Jazz Classics package. 

The price of a masterpiece

George RussellSometime last year I stopped at a service station halfway up the M1 and, while paying for my petrol, picked up a four-CD set of Northern Soul favourites. Mood and location were behind the impulse purchase. I needed cheering up, and I was close enough to Nottingham to be thinking fondly about 1960s nights at the Dungeon and the Beachcomber, when the sounds of Stax and Motown laid the foundations for what later transpired in the clubs of the north.

And then I realised what I was getting: 100 tracks for £9.99. In other words, 10p a track. And these were pieces — including the famous Wigan Casino “3 before 8” triptych of Dean Parrish’s “I’m On My Way”, Tobi Legend’s “Time Will Pass You By” and Jimmy Radcliffe’s “Long After Tonight Is All Over” — for which collectors parted with fortunes in their original 45rpm vinyl incarnations. It made me wonder about values, intrinsic and acquired. Although this was not a bootleg set, the chances of any of the surviving artists seeing even the tiniest fraction of my £9.99 seemed remote. And it also made me question whether you could possibly feel as strongly about something for which you’d paid 10p as I did when I paid six shillings and eight pence for my new copy of “Long After Tonight Is All Over” on the Stateside label back in 1965.

I’ve been thinking about that again recently since buying a couple of multi-disc sets devoted to jazz artists of the post-bop era on a label called Real Gone Jazz. Today’s purchase, for the princely sum of £6.99 at Soul Jazz Records in Soho, was of a four-CD set containing “seven classic albums” by George Russell (pictured above), the pianist, composer and bandleader who was partly responsible for guiding Miles Davis in the direction of modal jazz and Kind of Blue. There’s nothing misleading about Real Gone’s description of the contents of their package: besides being out of copyright, the seven albums — New York NY, Jazz in the Space Age, Stratusphunk, George Russell Sextet in Kansas City, Ezz-thetics, The Stratus Seekers and The Outer View — are indeed authentic classics, for which Russell’s British admirers were prepared to pay premium import prices on their first appearance between 1959 and 1962.

Russell leads a big band on the first two albums, with John Coltrane and Bill Evans among the sidemen. The remaining five titles are by his sextet (and, in one case, a septet), which I rank alongside the quartets of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio and Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop among the most stimulating small groups of their era. As a composer, Russell took bebop in new and provocative directions: his tunes have strong outlines and interesting implications for improvisers. As a bandleader, he persuaded young musicians to produce their very best work: the trumpeters Al Kiger and Don Ellis, the trombonist David Baker and the saxophonists John Pierce, Dave Young and Paul Plummer are all outstanding on these sessions, with Eric Dolphy making an indelible mark as a guest on the Ezz-thetic date. The bassist Steve Swallow — before he took up the electric instrument — and the drummer Joe Hunt formed an alert and swinging rhythm section, one of the most effective of the time. And the startingly original 12-minute version of “You Are My Sunshine” on The Outer View, with Sheila Jordan taking the vocal, is a masterpiece by any standard.

It’s nothing short of amazing to be able to acquire such stuff for so minimal an outlay, a real gift to listeners who might just be setting off into the foothills of this music, even though they won’t be getting the benefit of the full recording information (not even the composer credits), the excellent sleeve notes by such sympathetic critics as Joe Goldberg and Martin Williams, or the beautiful sleeves commissioned by Riverside’s Orrin Keepnews from the gifted designer Ken Deardoff. I just hope that those acquainting themselves with these albums for the first time, all at once, come to value them as much as we did when we saved up for the expensive imports on the Riverside or US Decca labels, our purchase of the individual LPs, spaced over a period of months and years, giving us the chance not just to keep pace with the personal evolution of an outstanding musician but to absorb, memorise and cherish every single note.