Eric Dolphy in Sardinia

Eric Dolphy in Sardinia

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2004 Mike Zwerin

Sant'Anna Arresi, Sardinia — Eric 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 stages — the 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.

Reviewing a concert by Orchestra USA, of which Dolphy and I were both members, in the New York Herald Tribune in 1963, Eric Salzman wrote: "Mr. Dolphy, for those who don't know, is a brilliant wildman, an undisciplined musical genius who produces frantic, incredible cries from the bottom to the tip-top of a whole range of woodwind instruments. Mr. Dolphy can no doubt produce his fantastic sounds on anything you can blow a noise out of. He could, I am sure, play with the same extreme expressive intensity on a pop bottle."

Orchestra USA 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 instrumentalists."

Dolphy was involved on some deep level with the orchestra — he 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, practised 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 are — Dolphy would have been right at home — they would surely figure something out. They always do.

In 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 writes in Paris for the International Herald Tribune.

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