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Viva Dolphy

A new box set and a tribute illuminate his legacy

by Norman Weinstein

How can you distinguish jazz from classical music? Whatever intellectual arguments might be summoned regarding different cultural traditions and performance values, let me suggest that jazzman Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) presents an overwhelming spiritual and emotional case for why the two musical styles should not be separated. Thirty-one years after his death we are presented with a monumental repackaging of his music along with an outstanding tribute album led by bassist Jerome Harris. To hear this music -- all 13 hours of it spread over 11 discs -- is more than an experience in sensing the vital commingling of classical music and jazz. It's a revelation into the soul of one of the major voices in jazz, an innovator of Mozartian grandeur.

If that comparison seems excessive, try listening to Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings, a nine-disc box from Fantasy. This box collects the music from 18 albums featuring Dolphy in various units ranging from quartets to big bands, all released between 1960 and 1961. Fourteen of the 78 tunes performed were penned by Dolphy, and all 89 recordings (alternative takes of several numbers were included) are enlivened by his performances on alto sax, clarinet, and flute.

Even a cursory listening will give you a sense of Dolphy's monumentally singular sound on whatever instrument. A nimble, boppish, octave-leaping, nervous-twittering energy informs his playing. He was inspired by bird calls and "Bird" (Charlie Parker was his guru, the object of Dolphy's mellifluous flute masterpiece "Ode to Charlie Parker," which is included here) and various African tonal languages, as well as by blues and a variety of swing saxophonists (Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas). And he sounds inspired by a range of classical composers -- especially Mozartian is his manic drive to embellish simple song forms. Listen to Dolphy's alto-sax solo interpretation of the pop standard "Tenderly." This sentimental melody is baroquely adorned by dashing, chatty-sounding saxophone filigrees. His "talky" tone extends the Mozartian tradition of woodwinds, assuming the vocal qualities of excited conversation. "From Mozart I learned to say important things in a conversational way," wrote George Bernard Shaw. Generations of jazz performers have learned to say important things from Dolphy.

The high points of this box include the high-energy live sets with trumpeter Booker Little, pianist Mal Waldron, and drummer Eddie Blackwell, the studio sessions with Little that resulted in Far Cry, and those with tenor-saxman Booker Ervin released originally under Waldron's name as The Quest. These albums, along with Out to Lunch (Blue Note), were Dolphy's best-executed recordings. The rest of his work here you can sample by just diving in.

Dolphy's classical-music training as a child made him open to Mozart but equally receptive to contemporary classicism. So his association with composer Gunther Schuller, who's always been comfortable with the jazz/classical synthesis, was productive. Vintage Dolphy (GM Recordings) has just been reissued in an expanded version showcasing a previously unreleased version of Schuller's "Variant on a Theme of Thelonious Monk" -- a reformulation of Monk's "Criss Cross" performed by Dolphy in a jazz sextet supplemented by a classical string trio. The 11 other live selections are not so much polished, well-balanced group performances as wondrous examples of Dolphy's imagination soaring, inventing new harmonic possibilities out of note choices articulated with plenty of smears and cries and a Mozartian fluidity of ideas, particularly on a magical-sounding flute.

No contemporary jazz performer has Dolphy's sound. So bassist/guitarist Jerome Harris made a smart move by assembling an ace band -- including clarinettist Don Byron, reed player Marty Ehrlich, drummer Bobby Previte, trombonist Ray Anderson -- and letting the musicians improvise on seven Dolphy-composed tunes. The result on Hidden in Plain View (New World Records) is a lively reworking of Dolphy's legacy that adds to his new harmonic thinking and tonal colors a sense of humor he rarely displayed. Dolphy's recording of "Out to Lunch" toyed with hints of a conventional march figure lurking around a highly irregular rhythmic form. Harris and friends have fun quoting a Sousa march in their version, proving that irreverence toward Dolphy can also be a form of noteworthy tribute.


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