SARDINIA, 20 October 2004Eric Dolphy, who died 40 years ago this
summer at the age of 36, was a Dolphyphone more than a multi-reedman. He
reinvented the flute and the alto saxophone, and pretty much invented jazz bass
clarinet. The Sant'Anna Arresi Jazz Festival in September in southwestern
Sardinia was dedicated to his memory.
It has been said that all new
ideas go through three stagesthe joke, the threat, and the obvious.
Though Dolphy did not live long enough to become, like Thelonious Monk and John
Coltrane, obvious, such a combination of passion, intelligence, and creativity
is rare. His raw textures, belligerent intonation, and threatening degree of
dissonance adhered to some un-catalogued system of sound. Tonality is a natural
force, like gravity, and Dolphy had more than one center. Musicians were afraid
that they were going to have to learn to play like that.
was created to explore the music known as Third Stream. Its statement of
purpose read: "In its fusion of heretofore separate elements of music-making,
Orchestra USA provides an exercise of mutual respect and compatibility between
classical and jazz forms made possible by today's thoroughly trained
Dolphy was involved on some deep level with the
orchestrahe kept telling interviewers how important it was to him.
Although he played the written parts with concentration and professional
discipline, his "incredible cries" were not really with the program. It was
sort of sad how hard he tried to do what he thought was expected of him.
Rehearsing, the conductor once stopped the orchestra in the middle of a Dolphy
improvisation to ask him to play "closer to the melody." This was somebody in
the process of changing our ears. Arguably, we should have been trying to play
closer to his melody.
Totally immersed in the flute part on a Mozart
work the orchestra prepared for weeks, Dolphy took the part home, practiced it
during rehearsal breaks, and once he continued to play it walking out of the
studio into the street. Although he was no Jean-Pierre Rampal, his articulation
was solid, his sound was fat, and he had a lot of desire. He lacked experience
with that sort of thing, not ability. When, at the last minute, a classical
flutist was engaged to play the concert, Dolphy turned up his collar, and said:
"I feel a draft."
Not to imply that he was ignored, or even unviable.
He was a busy freelancer, section man, and guest soloist; his record "Out To
Lunch" is a classic. Coltrane hired Dolphy to play with him in 1961, he worked
for extended periods with Chico Hamilton and Freddie Hubbard, and he was
featured on Oliver Nelson's archetypal album "Blues And The Abstract Truth."
In early 1964, he left for a tour of Europe with Charles Mingus. When
it was over, he decided to remain. On his way to Berlin, where he would die of
a heart attack brought on by diabetes, Dolphy recorded an album, which came to
be called "Last Date," in Hilversum, Holland, with
Misha Mengelberg and Han
Bennink on piano and drums.
Mengelberg and Bennink are the two guiding
lights of the successful, respected, theatrically-inclined, Dutch jazz
orchestra Instant Composers Pool (ICP), which performed an Eric Dolphy
Project in Sant'Anna Arresi. As the ICP climbed on the stage the final
evening, it was rumored that Mengelberg, who is semi-retired (and can be
cranky), had prepared only 16 measures for the occasion. Not to worry. Wacky,
loose, and inventive as they areDolphy would have been right at
homethey would surely figure something out. They always do.
the middle of the set, the trombone player put down his horn to answer his cell
phone. He talked for some time, his hand covering his other ear, while the band
played on with its habitual feistiness. It was not immediately clear if it was
part of the project or not. Either way, it led to the thought that Eric Dolphy
would have been more likely to play his horn in the middle of a phone call than
the other way around.
Mike Zwerin has been jazz
and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years.
He is currently writing a book entitled called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale
University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com. Zwerin who
has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted recently from 'Chevalier de
l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des
Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.