Saturday, December 11, 2004

Saving Eric Dolphy from Plastics

Imagine my delight and then chagrin when sitting in my hotel room in Amarillo, TX--the heart of the high plains, flat as a mattress, home of cattle auctions and the National Quarter Horse museum--I heard a snippet of 60’s avant-garde jazz coming from the television. I was pretty sure it was Eric Dolphy with Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. I reached for my iPod, dialed up Dolphy and sure enough the phrase I heard was from Hat and Bread the opening cut on the great Out to Lunch. The commercial was for (long pause) The American Plastics Council—how mundane. Was Benjamin Braddock listening after all? And they could have at least sampled Ornette Coleman. He did use a plastic sax.

But this disconcerting moment, does give me an opportunity to write about one of the great all time jazz albums—Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. Eric Dolphy was a hyper-talented, mutli-instrumental reed man (alto sax, flute, bass clarinet, clarinet) who died tragically in 1964 at the age of 36 from undiagnosed diabetes. Had Dolphy lived he may have been as well known as Coltrane and Mingus. He played with both, was influenced by and influenced both, and was as talented as both. As this album, recorded the year he died, witnesses he was at the height of his short career and clearly entering the modern pantheon that included not only Coltrane and Mingus, but Monk and Miles as well.

Featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, the amazing Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Richard Davis on bass, and muscular speedster Tony Williams on drums, Out To Lunch explores the dissonance between tone, rhythm, and melody creating a driving, dynamic lyricism that rivals Pollock or DeKooning at their abstract best. From the opening horn burst on Hat and Bread (a tribute to Monk) that leads to a driving base line, then a melodic interplay between Dolphy on bass clarinet to and Hutherson on vibes to the final notes on Straight Up and Down this album is amazing. I could go on an on but just go out and buy it (or stay home and down load it). And remember when you are fingering the jewel case or cradling your iPod the future of jazz isn’t plastics, but was, and is, Eric Dolphy.

If you want to hear more Dolphy, I highly recommend Dolphy’s Live at the Five Spot, Vol. 1, John Coltrane’s The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard (Dolphy is integral on one the greatest live recordings of all time), and Charles Mingus’s Town Hall Concert 1964 (another great live disc recorded a couple of months before Dolphy died).

To see pictures of Dolphy, click here.

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