Tag Archives: avant-garde

Fess Williams and Eric Dolphy Playing Their Saxophones

What do Fess Williams and Eric Dolphy have in common? For starters, both played for none other than Charles Mingus.

Dolphy, prophet of the jazz avant-garde, deeply admired by Mingus and considered one of the most galvanizing forces to ever play with the bassist/composer, and Williams, an incredibly popular bandleader during the twenties, now mostly remembered for his gas pipe clarinet that even diehard collectors merely tolerate: both appeared at Mingus’ (in)famous Town Hall Concert of 1962. Dolphy performed most of the show, but Mingus brought Williams, a.k.a. his Uncle Stanley, onstage briefly to show off some circular breathing.

Even more important than a boss or an uncle, Williams and Dolphy share an ear for the humorous and disturbing, a penchant for making their instruments squeak, honk and pop, throwing in plenty of gangly dissonances and other sounds that most musicians leave behind alongside soft reeds and method books.

Compare Williams’ jagged breaks at the beginning of “Playing My Saxophone”:

with Dolphy’s entrance on his groundbreaking “Out To Lunch”:

and it’s easy to hear that both reedmen simply love sound: the more jarring, the better. It’s fun to imagine Dolphy and Williams backstage at Town Hall, not saying a word but merely trading squawks and fractured themes.

Both Williams and Dolphy also snub their noses at the clean lines and cultivated timbres no doubt enforced at the conservatories they trained in. That makes them both rebels, and jazz loves a good rebel! Yet given Williams’ period of activity and the large audiences he played to, his rejection of classical instruction seems more commercial, and therefore more suspect.  Most jazz histories (when they mention Williams at all) relegate him to “novelty.” Williams was out to make a buck, Dolphy sought to change ears and minds. Dolphy is the artist, Williams was merely an entertainer.

It’s a neat little distinction, but it speaks more to cultural interpretation than sheer sound. Dolphy does often display much quicker fingers and harmonic variety, yet that’s as much of a stylistic choice as Williams’ reliance on a percussive sound and bumpy phrases.  Even when the sounds aren’t so similar, both players’ sense of taking the listener to a different, even weirder place is clear. Simply listening to Dolphy’s blurting, burry bass clarinet on “Booker’s Waltz”:

back-to-back with Williams’ ambling slap tongue solo on “Dixie Stomp” illustrates two musicians who liked to play in every sense of that word:

Yet even assuming that Williams was just goofing off to make a buck and that Dolphy was in fact the serious artist pushing boundaries, all the listener is left with is the sound. The sound is out there to be heard.  Trying asking it about its motives, or whether it’s a novelty or work of art.

While We're At It, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Left) Stole Wilbur Sweatman's Act!

While We’re At It, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Right) Stole Wilbur Sweatman’s Act!

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The Vindication of Woody Walder

Woody Walder Wails (and Then Some) on Clarinet

Woody Walder didn’t so much play the clarinet as deploy it.  His solos with Bennie Moten’s band are closer to sonic found art sculptures than the poems, speeches and epigrams of his Jazz Age colleagues.  Walder pieced together squeals, squeaks, whinnies, whines and cries, sometimes through the insertion of foreign objects into the bell of his instrument, other times with just his mouthpiece.  The effect (Walder seemed all about effect) could be humorous or disturbing, at times grating, but was always surprising.

Walder’s particular sound of surprise hasn’t served his legacy well. Most jazz historians locate Walder’s playing somewhere between a tolerable novelty of the times or a now dated commercial evil, perhaps higher than comb playing and barnyard theatrics, but far below the fine art of plunger-muted brass.

Courtesy of chaka85.wordpress.com

It’s a pity Walder missed out on noise music, the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s experiments or the deliberately nasal, percussive and off-pitch curveballs of the World Saxophone Quartet.  The avant-garde as well as Walder and contemporaries such as Fess Williams (and even King Oliver at his onomatopoeic) all relished vocally inflected, “unmusical,” weird and occasionally cacophonous sounds.  Apparently Walder’s mistake was doing it for a willing and wide audience.

It’s best to listen to Walder on his own terms, neither as historical victim or stylistic precursor, but simply as a musician playing on a record.  Better yet, forget the man and just listen to the wholly unique, singularly “ugly” sounds twisting pitch and time on “Elephant’s Wobble,” “Thick Lip Stomp” and “Yazoo Blues.”  If you’re craving context, listen to how Walder’s solo on “Midnight Mama” at times resembles a hybrid of Rex Stewart’s half-valving and Bubber Miley’s gutbucketing, transplanted to Eric Dolphy’s honking, metallic reed.   It’s a hell of an act, or art, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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