Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The music of Eric Dolphy and Booker Little (the latter died of uremia in October of 1961 at the age of twenty-three, only several months after the engagement at the Five Spot which this series of albums documents) is representative of the new energy, the new dynamism, in jazz.

Revolutionary movements, such as the one which is now taking place in Jazz, are the result of independent artists who, having found themselves constructed within the con­ventional order of the time, are coming to similar conclusion about the nature and the possibilities of a new order. In Jazz, as Martin Williams has pointed out, this would seem to happen every twenty years or so. inevitably the new order will become the new convention and it will then be neces­sary for a new movement to begin so that surprise may be rediscovered and the art revitalized.

Unfortunately change is resisted because it frequently requires a painful revaluation of what reality is. The in­novator must deal not only with the hostility of the threatened establishment and the unwillingness of the audience to abandon its preconceptions of what music is supposed to sound tike, of what a painting must look like, of what literature can, and cannot, say, but also with that part of himself that would also resist liberation from the conventional, the sanctioned and the safe, that would paralyze him at the moment at which he arrives at his origi­nality.

Dolphy and Little were coping with these counter forces at the time these albums were recorded. These forces re­sulted in ambivalences which were compounded in Little's case because he was not quite free of his conservatory back­ground — not free in the sense that he was not yet complete­ly able to make use of it without becoming restricted by it, because so much of what he had learned in the conserva­tory was antithetical to what he saw music could also be. For Dolphy, who had come East from Los Angeles with Chico Hamilton some three years before, there was, it would seem, still the problem of adapting to the fierce competi­tiveness of New York scene where so much is always hap­pening, alt at once — the problem, under the uniquely diffi­cult New York circumstances of getting his thing together."

The ambivalences are also made evident, to an extent, by the members of the rhythm section who with the excep­tion of Eddie Blackwell who worked with Ornette Coleman, illustrate both the point of Dolphy's and Little's departure and (by their presence) the necessity to control and make tentative that departure. Dolphy and Little were couched in an orthodoxy by the rhythm section. Pianist Mai Waldron (whom critic Joe Goldberg accurately referred to, as a "stab­ilizing influence") and bassist Richard Davis, are exciting, exploratory and often brilliant musicians and these remarks are not intended to derogate them, but only to say that they were not taking their music to those areas where Dolphy, Little and Blackwell were taking theirs.

Still, as the musk in this album wilt witness, Dolphy and Little were surmounting both the outwardly imposed obsta­cles and those that are developed within.”

- Robert Levin, LP liner notes

[On July 29, 1964, Eric Dolphy joined Booker Little in death, and Jazz sustained another tragic loss. As time passes, the absence of such innovators only serves to enhance the significance of recordings such as these].

When now fabled recording engineer, Rudy van Gelder, took his portable equipment down to the Five Spot in New York on July 16, 1961, he captured seven tunes by an extraordinary quintet led by two young lions – flute, alto saxophone and bass clarinet player, Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Booker Little.

Within three years after these recordings were made, both men would be dead. Indeed, Booker Little would be gone less than three months later.

What survives in these seven tracks is a confluence of the many styles of modern Jazz of the preceding fifteen years – Parker-Gillespie to Mingus to Coleman-Cherry – as enshrined by two young musicians who loved it all, wanted to reflect it all in their playing and make their own contributions to it.

While the critics of the time raged in debate about the merits of “free Jazz,” Dolphy and Little just embraced it along with everything else that had gone before it and tried to make it their own.

They were joined for the two-week gig by Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Eddie Blackwell on drums [who, Michael Cuscuna has commented, “…is definitely a candidate for the title of most neglected drummer in jazz history”]. 

This would be the only time that this group would play in public together.  Joe Goldberg observed in his liner notes to the first LP volume [Prestige/New Jazz 8260]: “In format, it was a standard quintet of the kind that the bop era had made traditional – saxophone, trumpet and three rhythm – but the music hinted at developments that were going far beyond that concept.”

One of the unique things about Eric Dolphy’s music was his use of the bass clarinet, but most particularly, the way he played it.

As Michael Ullman explains in his essay “The Clarinet in Jazz” [Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz, pp. 594-95]:

“The bass clarinet had been used in jazz before, by Harry Carey in the Ellington band, for instance. In 1964 Buddy DeFranco recorded Blues Bag on bass clarinet. In the fifties and sixties, Eric Dolphy made it one of his specialties. … Dolphy extended it into the mainstream with his angular, post-bop phrasing, his odd choice of notes, [and] his habit of entering a solo from an unexpected place harmonically. He was fluent without ever seeming smooth. He featured the bass clarinet on a repeatedly recorded tour-de-force solo version of ‘God Bless the Child,’ on which he alternates a swirling arpeggiated patterns with fragments of Billie Holiday’s melody. The angularity broke away from Parker; it also seem to fit the bass clarinet.”

In their review of these recordings in the Sixth Edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, authors Richard Cook and Brian Morton also emphasize Dolphy’s bass clarinet playing on God Bless the Child and go on the offer additional insights about the music on these recordings:

“Interesting how often Dolphy albums are defined by unaccompanied performances, and the Five Spot dates include a first recorded outing for ‘God Bless the Child,’ which was to become Dolphy’s bass clarinet feature, a sinuous, untranscribable harmonic exercise that leaves the source material miles behind. … Dolphy takes the initiative, roughening the texture of [Waldron’s] ‘Fire Waltz’ and suggesting a more joyous take on Waldron’s typically dark writing. Little contributes ‘Aggression,” ‘Booker’s Waltz’ and the splendid ‘Bee Vamp,’  a tough, off-centre theme that was to fall rather uncomfortably under the horn-player’s fingers.

Paul Berliner, in the section on the “Collective Aspects of Improvisation: Arranging Pieces” [Thinking in Jazz, pp. 300-301] offers these insights about the group’s rendition of Like Someone in Love:

“In Eric Dolphy’s and Booker Little’s distinctive version, after a brief introduction, Little’s trumpet, Dolphy’s flute and Richard’s Davis’ bowed bass interpret the piece allusively, without accompaniment. The improvise a tightly woven polyphony that proceeds through the piece with an elastic sense of rhythm at almost dirge-like tempo. At the head’s conclusion, Davis switches to an active pizzicato style, joining the rhythm section to provide solo accompaniments that alternate between medium tempo and double-time. After the solos, Little and Dolphy resume their reflective discourse on the melody, accompanied by the rhythm section’s steady beat. Then, the entire ensemble, with Davis again on bowed bass, creates a free-rhythmic section that culminates the performance.”

To call the music on these recordings “Free Jazz” is a misnomer.  The rhythm section plays in a very straight-ahead manner on all of the tracks and Dolphy and Little base their solos on strict musical conventions.  At times, the phrasing employed by the horn players during their solos can be a bit experimental and searching, but by and large, these are young ears who are curious and interested about the prospects of taking the music in a new direction.  They are trying to expand the music by exploring some new boundaries.  They are definitely not interested participating in the frenzied rush to musical self-destruction that would characterize much of the “Free Jazz” movement yet to come in the decade of the 1960s and beyond.

Robert Levin offered this advice about Eric Dolphy and his approach to Jazz:

“… if you can open yourself to this music you will find that it can take you to corners of the mind and the emotions where the substances of truth and beauty are waiting to be revealed and experienced.”  

These Five-Spot in-performance recordings will take you there.

A sampling of which is on hand in the following video tribute to Eric.

The tune is Mal Waldron’s Fire Waltz.