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Music | ALL THAT JAZZ

Imagining the melodies that might have been

Eric Dolphy died 39 years ago at age 36. He left a catalog of seminal recordings -- and questions about potential unrealized.

June 27, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Four decades after woodwind player Eric Dolphy died at age 36, it's a fair guess that even among jazz fans his name is better known than his music.

He was born 75 years ago this month in Los Angeles. Last week, Dolphy was honored by a performance at the William Grant Still Arts Center of an original composition by Phil Ranelin. In addition, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors designated June 20 as Eric Dolphy Day. There is also a plan to name after him a playground a few blocks from his childhood home on West 35th Street near USC.

Few jazz artists receive even that much acknowledgment, one might say. Why should Dolphy receive more notice than anyone else? Think of how pop music might have unfolded in the late '60s had Bob Dylan died before recording with an electric band. Think of the songs unwritten, the unexpressed influence upon younger artists, the musical blendings that never would have happened.

We can never know, of course, what Dolphy's impact would have been had he lived to see 75. But the compositions and recordings that he left behind when he died in Germany in June 1964 after falling into a diabetic coma are those of an astonishingly gifted artist. Like John Coltrane, with whom he performed in several seminal recordings, he demonstrated the capacity to be a powerful catalyst for change.

Facile on three instruments -- alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute -- Dolphy, like Coltrane and Charlie Parker, came to musical maturity through rigorous practice. His technical virtuosity was matched by an omnivorous curiosity, reaching from the sounds of birdcalls to the full range of classical music.

All those elements might be in a Dolphy solo. In performance he was mesmerizing. The leaps and bounds of his melody lines, the masterful control of the sound and the technique of his instruments were utterly unlike those of any jazz artist before or since. His bass clarinet playing was especially amazing -- perhaps the first true use of the instrument as a vital jazz voice.

Most fascinating was the fact that the Proustian complexities of his lines were in no way off-putting. Rather, they pulled the receptive listener in to share the fast-flowing pleasures of an adventurous musical journey.

Dolphy rose to visibility at a heady time in jazz -- the late 1950s and early '60s. He worked with the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1958, joined the Charles Mingus group a year later and began to make his own recordings in 1960. Most of his playing in the final years of his life took place with Mingus, Coltrane, his own groups and a few other collaborators (including the iconoclastic "Free Jazz" recording with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and performances with John Lewis' Orchestra U.S.A.).

The impact Dolphy might have had was undoubtedly muted by Coleman's highly publicized arrival in 1959. For a few years, Dolphy and Coleman were juxtaposed against one another, much like the '30s and '40s duality of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

Dolphy, with his harmonically complex style, assumed the Hawkins mantle, while Coleman's stretched-out, riff-driven lines recalled Young's loping minimalism.

Dolphy's work has better survived the test of time. Unfortunately, it exists only on recordings, while Coleman, now 73 and viewed as a jazz icon, performs before adoring audiences who listen in rapt concentration.

Still, given how many recordings Dolphy made between 1959 and 1964, it's surprising that even now, his playing has not had more impact upon young saxophonists and flutists. Harder to explain is why he has not received more attention, even here in his native city. A revival of his music has been long overdue.

For listeners willing to take a step in that direction, here is a basic CD collection of Dolphy's art. Note the word "out" in many of the titles -- a reflection of the interest at the time in what was described as "outside" playing:

* "Outward Bound" (New Jazz). His first outing as a leader, from April 1960, features pianist Jaki Byard and drummer Roy Haynes with bassist George Tucker in a set reaching from Dolphy's bop roots to his blossoming improvisational ideas. He also announces his multi-instrumental versatility via a stunning bass clarinet solo on "On Green Dolphin Street" and a similarly impressive flute rendition of "Glad to Be Unhappy."

* "Out There" (New Jazz). Dolphy's second album as a leader, from August 1960, displays his already expanding musical horizons. Ron Carter, playing cello, joins Dolphy in the front line, and the music reaches deep into turbulent areas of free improvisation.

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