Young Saint with a Horn

Milo Miles reviews the music of Eric Dolphy.

Published May 1, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Jazz needs Eric Dolphy more than ever. A virtuoso on saxophone, clarinet and flute, his work bridges the two sides of a debate that dogs jazz fans and performers today. To oversimplify, the neoconservatives argue that jazz must be profoundly grounded in tradition, that new developments are little more than a gloss, and that history stops with Miles Davis and modal jazz in the middle '60s, with bare whispers of Ornette Coleman and nothing from swingless radicals like Cecil Taylor. The rebels (most now older than the neocons) counter that jazz loses its essence by going backward, that the titans revered by the neocons were fearless innovators, and that the whole reactionary movement reduces jazz to a museum music with a self-righteous fence around it. Dolphy could have listened to both sides, picked up his horn, and showed the way out in a dozen choruses. But he died in 1964, barely 36, struck down by complications stemming from undiagnosed diabetes.
Dolphy, who studied classical flute with Elise Moennig (and brought the instrument into jazz more forcefully than anyone before him) and founded the bass clarinet as an improvising horn, flourished in a jazz scene far more turbulent and riven than today's. A Los Angeles native who honed his chops for years on the local scene, he gained national attention as a member of the Chico Hamilton band, and went out on his own at the end of 1959. By then, Taylor and Coleman had already dropped the bombshells that ignited free jazz, and the response to their challenge would dominate the next 10 years of the music. Dolphy began with a blast of creativity: he would never record as much for the rest of his life as he did in 1960-61. Many key parts of those sessions are gathered together for the first time on the 9-CD box "Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings" (Milestone).
No acquaintance ever had a bad word to say about Eric Dolphy the person. All describe him as calm, kind, witty, humble and introspective. The mercurial bassist and band leader Charles Mingus, a harsh judge of character, called Dolphy "a saint." He needed the internal fortitude to withstand the resistance his work met not only with the public but with more traditional jazz players. Financially strapped his whole career, Dolphy had to scramble for gigs. He never touched drugs or alcohol. His only addiction was constant practicing -- in the bathroom between sets, next to the record player at parties.
The sound-blip version of Dolphy is that he was freer than John Coltrane but more traditional than Ornette Coleman. He met both men in the middle '50s and later played crucial dates with them, as well. But Dolphy's technique and soul stand apart.

His rhythm was firmly grounded in the bebop of Charlie Parker and moved away from it very carefully. Although Dolphy was very elastic with time by the end, the foundation of bop never disappears entirely in his jazz pieces. His harmonies and chords were bold from the start. His playing referred to the basic tonality of a piece less and less frequently and his passion for passing chords was immense and inspired. In some ways, Dolphy was more disconcerting to bebop (not to mention swing) traditionalists than Coleman, because instead of speaking an entirely new language, Dolphy used a startling variant on a familiar one. He was fascinated by tunes with odd, uneven structures and instrumentation. But always he was studied, assured, in his explorations.
Dolphy claimed he wanted to make his horns talk, and the exact harmonic sequence of his solos has little to do with the appeal of hearing them. One reason Charles Mingus picked Dolphy for his band was because of the vivid vocal quality of his saxophone playing. Mingus was a bit of a literalist. In "What Love" (recorded in 1960 but not for Prestige) Mingus and Dolphy recreate an argument, affectionately resolved, between them, and their bickering through their instruments is a joy to hear. All of Dolphy's best work has this singing quality -- yearning and laughing stretches broken by harsh tones that never impede the forward roll of his thoughts. If Dolphy lacks the relentless searching quality of Coltrane or the flair for beauty-amidst-chaos of Coleman, he is a more disciplined poet than either, and perhaps a more classic modernist.
"The Complete Prestige Recordings" is a big, expensive chunk to bite off for a Dolphy beginner, but it will hold up for anyone who claims to be a half-serious fan of modern jazz. The ideal starting point is the unaccompanied bass clarinet treatment of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" on disc nine. In the course of six- and-a-half faultless minutes, Dolphy covers the original outline of the song with dazzling Cubist angles and refractions. Very "outside," it's never merely wild. The same can be said for "The Prophet," part of a tremendous in-concert band showcase that incorporates all of the celebrated Live at the Five Spot tracks. Dolphy shines in the company of the equally adventurous trumpeter Booker Little, and Dolphy's first solo on "The Prophet," though filled with seeming shrieks and holy cries, uses firm technique to take risks. Underpinning everything is the unmistakable drumming of Ed Blackwell, a Coleman associate who's always the essence of brains and funk.
"The Complete Prestige" also includes Dolphy highlights like "Far Cry," featuring Booker Little and almost as exciting as the Five Spot numbers, and Dolphy's breakthrough as a leader, "Out There," with its eerie cello work from famed bassist Ron Carter. The box gathers probing albums by others with strong Dolphy features: Oliver Nelson's "Straight Ahead" and, especially, Mal Waldron's overlooked "The Quest." But even all these can't cover Dolphy's prodigious activity at the time.
While he recorded for Prestige, Dolphy played on such jazz monuments as Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz," George Russell's "Ezz- thetics" and, just after Prestige, "John Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard." Dolphy took a long break as a leader after leaving Prestige, working on such wondrous but little-known albums as Andrew Hill's "Point of Departure. " Dolphy's absolute timeless masterpiece under his own name, "Out to Lunch," dates from this later period. Perhaps, given more time, he would have led a sterling band such as the one on that Blue Note album. Up to the very end, even as his unsuspected diabetes felled him in Europe, his solos on "Last Date" show he was finding deeper, richer combinations.
Dolphy speaks his most famous lines after the final notes of "Last Date": "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." His magnificent 9-CD box alone proves this is not so, but the remarks are usually applied to Dolphy's premature departure. And indeed, his like will never be captured again.

By Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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