Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Eric Dolphy, 1964

Today I got hold of (and edited) the Charles Mingus Sextet concert from Oslo, 1964 with Dolphy on, among others, bass clarinet. As far as I know, this is one of the last, if not the last, video recordings of Dolphy in his life. This clip is of the sextet playing "Take the A Train."

I have a like/dislike relationship with Dolphy's playing, as some of you might know. Of course, he's a genius in many ways, but over the years of careful listening I've come to notice that his bass clarinet solos in particular follow a sort of finger pattern that's a little unschooled and raw. For me, it's almost like he didn't really have complete command over the instrument. (I know this is sacrilege). This is why, in part, I have always thought that the "God Bless The Child" improv was probably worked out in advance, if not written out or maybe outlined on paper -- because it's different.

Well, today I am not so sure I was ever right. This performance, with Dolphy's solo at about 4:30 into the tune, shows some seriously advanced skill playing "outside" yet still clearly following the harmony of the tune. I could hear it brought back throughout the solo. By the way, I love the fact that Mingus gets up and walks offstage during the solo (probably to pee) while the other members of the sextet chat.

I'm impressed with how he controls and explores the range of the horn, not as much squawking/honking as I've heard on much of his recorded work. He doesn't revert to his "lick" that I've heard in about half of his recorded solos (to me, the equivalent of saying "um" or "you know" in the middle of a sentence). He inserts many pauses -- sometimes long ones -- into this solo.

Some other things I noticed: He uses 1/1 for Eb and Bb a lot. When the band comes in after his "acapella" solo, the audience claps, and Dolphy looks pissed. He waits for the applause to die a bit, and kind of gestures as if to say, "jaHEEzus, I'm not even done yet. Shut the hell up!" Oh, and I love the Tympani on the back riser.

Anyway, I'll let you form your own opinions -- here's the link:

Mingus in Oslo

One last word: you'll need the Flash 8 plugin to view the video. It's free at adobe.com


Ken Thomson said...

Alright - I'll take the bait. Saying that Dolphy didn't have complete command of his instrument is absurd!

YES he has licks he goes to; and those are similar licks on alto saxophone as bass clarinet. As you know, achieving them on both instruments is not just slamming your fingers in the same place. These were his licks, no one else had them or tought them; they were part of his language.

The thing that always astounds me about Dolphy's playing is that - and you can hear this in the clip - his intonation and control is perfect when he's in a section. He's on the Coltrane record "Africa Brass" conducting and in the horn section; you don't hear one of jazz's most identifiable horn players - because he's tucked in there, playing perfectly in tune. You can hear this on any number of records he's a sideman on. Probably most famous being Oliver Nelson's "Blues and the Abstract Truth." In this clip, you can hear him play in beautiful unison with Clifford Jordan. Perfect intonation and blending? Not your usual definition of "raw"!

There is some element of God Bless the Child that's "worked out" - if it weren't somehow only cool for jazz musicians to improvise, you could call it a loose "arrangement" or even "composition." It's a brilliant form that he works off - there's at least one live version as well.

I don't doubt that Dolphy got better & better at bass clarinet as he kept going with it; and this is indeed just brilliant at the end of his tragically short life - as you mentioned, the range is what really gets to me here; the in & out of harmony with that skill he's been doing for years at this point.

Whether or not you like his scratchy tone (I love it), the bass clarinet wouldn't have the same place in the musical world without him. In his wake, it became cool to play bass clarinet in jazz. No one else was exploring what that instrument could do the way he was. Yes, he's reverting to licks - but he's creating a new beast: how to improvise on bass clarinet.....

Lastly, thank GOODNESS dolphy wasn't schooled! thank GOODNESS no one was there to show him the proper tone! Thank GOODNESS someone didn't say "what the hell are you doing, that instrument belongs in a broadway pit or symphony orchestra, not on stage with your jazz group." Thank GOODNESS he came up with his own finger patterns that he repeated again and again. If only his life had been longer, we can only imagine where he could have gone...

Your friend
Ken Thomson

lowenstern said...

Beauty! Thanks for the comment.

But I hope I wasn't baiting. At least that wasn't my intention.

Here is my position, at least for today: Dolphy was the first, absolutely no doubt. And if it weren't for him, I'm certain the Bass Clarinet would be in a different, less interesting place, today. I know personally many composers wouldn't have become interested in the instrument -- I mean look at Contra Bassoon, it has yet to be championed in the way the bass clarinet has as a solo and/or jazz instrument. So, yes, Dolphy had an indelible mark on what the course of the bass clarinet in music turned out to be.

BUT -- and this is where I get into hot water -- I still maintain that just because he was the first doesn't make him the "Godfather" as it were. I wouldn't aspire to "be like Dolphy" like I might aspire to "be like Coltrane" (both comments I've made in the past). I have problems, and they are mine, with Dolphy's playing and improvising. I try not to say that these are universal, but they are certainly valid to me. I don't like his sound, sorry. But then again, I don't like his flute sound, I REALLY don't like his clarinet sound and I don't particularly like his Alto sound. Hey, that could be his "thing" and I'm sure that there are people out there who feel the same way about me and worse. So, I can't judge him universally, that is to say "No one should like this. How can anyone out there like this?!" -- far from it.

About his intonation. It was hot and cold. I have some clarinet stuff of "Out To Lunch" and "Out There" that could really peel paint. Now, much of that has to do with his bass player (I forget who it was on those records), but hey, those are DOLPHY records, so someone had to be doing quality control over there. (BTW, bass clarinets in the 1950's and 1960's were notoriously out of tune, and I've played one of his bass clarinets from that period that was a real clunker. I can tell you, that instrument could NOT play in tune. If I was feeling a bit more industrious, I'd have recorded it to see how it fit in with some of the stuff I find out of tune on his recordings...but I was just too freaked out by being able to touch and play one of his horns).

Finally, about Schooling. I agree, you don't need to be schooled to play an instrument. Couldn't agree more.

Anyway Ken, I hear where you're coming from. And thanks for contributing. I didn't think anyone was listening. Maybe I should incite more stuff like this. :)

Peter Hess said...

Hey there. First, THANKS for posting the clip. I've heard most of Dolphy's recorded output, and this was great new information. I agree with you (ML) that this is a really refreshing couple of minutes in the Dolphy canon. . . there is a lot of really inspired improvisation there that goes beyond some of the "standard" Dolphy. He's hitting and missing, and you can really hear what he was searching for. And maybe Dannie Richmond didn't hear it. . . because you're right about that, where the band comes back in, he gets the shaft. . . they weren't hearing his rythmic development in the same way. Then he's got nowhere to go. . . got a little hijacked by the rhythm section and he's gotta doubletime to stay in the game. But definitely more inspired playing than that Indianapolis concert released a couple of years ago. . . that really seemed rote. I agree that the fact that he's generally first to make an impact on the instrument doesn't neccessarily make him the end-all. I keep coming back to the fact that his musical language is so iconoclastic. . . there's almost no transliteration of, say, Bird like in early Ornette. . . save that one damn encirclement lick. I've always thought that his music in toto, rather than specifically his musicianship, is his most enduring contribution. And so if we're talking about the small sonic universe that he created, which before him did not, and after him did include the bass clarinet, then KT you're right on that he's responsible for its genesis. KT, how do you feel about the flute playing? Apply the same questions as you did to the bc and I think what you get is what I mean about the music being far more important than the musicianship. (The corrolary to this maybe: '58 Trane, where the musicianship is much more important and revolutionary than the music. . . '61 '62 is a different deal altogether where the two steams converge and nothing is ever the same again).

Mike Barnes said...

Thanks for the link Mike. I'm not an accomplished musician but as far as I'm concerned the bcl is the greatest instrument ever invented. It is interesting to read you guys discussing Eric's skill and/or lack thereof but to my ears Eric is dang near perfect. That being said, I consider you to be one of the 5 greatest bcl players alive today. Fortunately for me I can truly enjoy it when a fellow makes a mistake or plays out of key. Rudi Mahall is a good example of that; can you even stand to listen to him? Now when are you coming to the midwest (Chicago/St. Louis) so I can see you in person?

All the Best,

Mike Barnes

Matan Rubinstein said...

The Bass player at Out To Lunch is Richard Davis.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this clip, and thanks, Peter, for the metaphor that early Ornette was "transliterating" Bird--the same musical language in a different alphabet. Very well put.

My reaction to the clip is based partly on my having already been 22, and a bebop piano player, at the time it was recorded. It's remarkable how completely un-bebop Dolphy's playing is, unlike Clifford Jordan's, who seems to be trying to get unstuck from the bebop vocabulary but succeeding only intermittently. And Jaki Byard is already a post-modern player, though nobody would have used the term back then, moving between percussive Horace Silver-style hard bop and James P. Johnson stride with perfect fluency.

Finally, why are all those guys in the audience wearing dark glasses, and why are Mingus and the band in such a hurry to get off the stange?