In jazz, as in Zen, lineage counts for a lot. People ask, “Who’d he play with?,” about an exciting new performer, just as monks ask “Who did he study under?,” when the teachings of a new Master are spread.
And Eric Dolphy, just like Huineng, was a true original. He seems to have burst out of nowhere, suddenly, and with his own distinctive style and approach to music. While most of the other so-called avant-garde of the late 50s and early 60s sound very intense and serious in their playing, Dolphy's solos are playful and exuberant, even ecstatic. He was a true multi-instrumentalist, and largely introduced the bass clarinet to jazz as a solo instrument. He was also one of the first to record extended unaccompanied horn solos.
Dolphy played in relative obscurity in L.A. until he joined the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1958. In 1959, he moved to New York and was soon a member of the Charles Mingus Quartet. Dolphy recorded quite a bit during 1960-1961, including three albums cut at the Five Spot while with trumpeter Booker Little, Free Jazz with Ornette Coleman, and sessions with the drummer Max Roach. By late 1961, Dolphy was part of the John Coltrane Quintet; their engagement at the Village Vanguard, now legendary, provoked jazz conservatives to brand Coltrane and Dolphy's work as “anti-Jazz” due to the lengthy and very free solos, greatly upseting Dolphy and causing Coltrane to fire back a response to Downbeat magazine.
Between September 25 and November 19, 1961, Dolphy recorded a TV special and a radio air check in Stockholm. These dates have been released as “The Stockholm Sessions.” It’s a remarkable album – the man’s mind sticks to nothing, and no two cuts are alike. Dolphy switches between highly varied approaches to composition; between playing alto sax, bass clarinet and flute; and between a Swedish quartet (Knud Jorgensen or Rune Owferman on piano, Jimmy Woode on bass and Sture Kallin on drums), a quintet (by adding the trumpeter Indees Sulieman on a few cuts), and totally solo (his amazing unaccompanied bass clarinet version of "God Bless the Child"). And although one can never pin him down, saying, “He’s the guy who plays in such-and-such style,” the album is a perfect conceptual whole.
The album opens with a short, crisp drum solo and then Dolphy’s energetic alto on “Loss” (aka “Les”). Dolphy’s blowing jumps up and down from one register to another and although free from melodic limitations, it never sounds dissonant or harsh. It’s an up-tempo number and the quartet kicks the beat along nicely until Dolphy squeaks and squeals into a slow fade of a finish.
On the next song, “Sorino” Dolphy switches to bass clarinet for a slow, bluesy number. And while the opening melody is conventional enough, he quickly starts playing scales and goes off from there into an exploration of the sonic possibilities of that most ungainly of instruments - the bass clarinet. In the wrong hands, the bass clarinet can sound like a petrified squid, but in Dolphy’s it sings like a bird (although, granted, possibly some sort of prehistoric bird). Never falling into a rut, Dolphy keeps surprising the listener with different and innovative approaches from one line to the next.
“Miss Ann” is another fast-paced, post-bop number reminiscent of the opener “Loss,” but this time with Dolphy sticking to the bass clarinet to show that the instrument can also swing every bit as hard as the sax. He spits out some nice hard lines, and trumpter Idrees Sulieman cuts in seamlessly.
But the showstopper is “God Bless the Child,” with Dolphy all alone on bass clarinet. The composition has its own fun-house logic, with Dolphy playing repeating scales, the same device that starts off his extended solo on “Sorino,” but occasionally stopping to play just one or two notes of the familiar melody before the cycles of scales start in again. And occasionally, just when you think you’ve got the pattern figured out and are waiting to hear the next notes of the melody, he pulls the rug out from under you with a sudden, soulful riff, or else a long, flat “blaaaaat” – the petrified squid sound. Or a run all the way down to the bottom of the bass clarinet’s range, a note so deep and low it reverberates in your sphincter. And strangely, although it was recorded way back in ’61, it almost sounds at times like electronic music, and the oscillating scales and repeating patterns pre-suppose the programmed synthesizers of 20 years later.
On the next cut, a cover of Mal Waldron’s “Alone,” Dolphy shows that he still has plenty of innovations up his sleeve, switching now to solo flute. The piece starts off very formal and traditional, Dolphy stating the melody and placidly going through the song’s lines for the first two minutes or so, until he suddenly jumps out with a bunch of bird-like improvisations and the band quietly falls in behind. Everything is quickly resolved, however, and his latter, more-varied approach to the flute is soon revealed to be the same melody used to start the piece.
“GeeWee” includes some great give-and-take between Dolphy, back on alto, and Sulieman, and on the closing cut, “Don’t Blame Me,” Dolphy returns to the flute. “Don’t Blame Me” is a long leisurely piece, allowing Dolphy to explore a lot of varied approaches to both his technique and to composition. The CD version of “the Stockholm Sessions” includes an alternate version of “Sorino.”
Eric Dolphy eventually settled in Europe and made it his home (his fiancée was a ballerina in Paris), recording three volumes of “Eric Dolphy in Europe,” as well as “The Copenhagen Concert,” “The Berlin Concerts,” “Live in Germany” and “The Complete Uppsala Concert.” Tragically, he died suddenly from a diabetic coma on June 29, 1964 at the age of 36.
If you have any interest in creativity or the possibilities of music, or if you just want to hear a master musician in his prime, check out this album.