Tag Archives: Eric Dolphy

Lester, Bobby And The Story Of Improvisation

LesterYoungCareOfRicoReedsBlogspotLester Young’s description of how Frank Trumbauer “always told a little story” through his music is the type of quietly stated but philosophically explosive idea that was bound to change everything.

Young was probably not the first person to use the term “story.” He was certainly not the first musician to conceive of a jazz solo as a coherent narrative implying something beyond notes and rhythms (though his words, like his music, perfectly express that concept). Whenever the metaphor first appeared or whoever first began “telling stories,” before Young, Trumbauer and maybe even Louis Armstrong, the idea has not only stuck but has become synonymous with jazz improvisation.

Solos are often described in terms of their “beginning, climax” and “conclusion.” Even the most diehard free jazz player will mention a desire to “communicate” with the listener. Describing a musician as “just playing notes” often means that their playing lacks something crucial. It’s a popular way to dismiss players or entire styles, indicating that whatever else “jazz” means, it is about “saying something.” What young Lester Young described as a new possibility now seems like the only way to play jazz.

The analogy between a jazz solo and a story has also inspired enough thought and ink to fill books such as Sven Bjerstedt’s Storytelling In Jazz Improvisation. The Swedish scholar considers and dissects this metaphor using sources ranging from hermeneutic philosopher George Gadamer to the contemporary Swedish jazz scene, across more than three-hundred meticulously cited and often dense (but not impenetrable) pages. Even if you don’t have the inclination to read or the time to finish it, the mere existence of Bjerstedt’s book illustrates the ubiquity and impact of the storytelling metaphor.

Ironically, while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis I wasn’t thinking about Young, Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker or even Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and other players considered “storytellers.” Instead, I could not stop playing Bobby Davis’s music.

Bobby Davis never led his own date and practically vanished from disographical and historical records after the early thirties, passing away fairly young in 1949. Yet he was prominent as both a soloist and an ensemble player with the California Ramblers in all their pseudonymous glory during the twenties. Eugene Chadbourne’s All Music Guide entry on Davis describes “a brilliant multi-instrumentalist” and Richard Sudhalter credits Davis’s “bright-toned and upbeat” clarinet and alto saxophone at several points in his landmark Lost Chords. Hundreds of sides feature Davis playing an intense, personal style that I would never describe as telling a story.

Instead, Davis’s solos careen every which way except straightforward. He plays in the arpeggio-rooted manner of many pre-swing reed players but his “saw tooth” lines are especially jagged, for example on “Wang Wang Blues”:

It’s not Davis’s tone, which is actually quite smooth if occasionally (and delightfully) nasal, adding that spiky atmosphere. Nor is it his frequent recourse to broken chords; Davis keeps returning to the top of a new phrase before letting the last one finish, like starting down a new stairway before getting to the bottom of another. If you had to make a literary analogy, it might be to some William S. Burroughs cut and paste outing, but if anything Davis conjures an M.C. Escher landscape reimagined by John Held.

This overtly “vertical” style is now written off as amateurish and unimaginative, yet taken on its own terms it generates plenty of energy and frenzied charm. Jazz is now often praised for its ability to move hearts and minds, yet listening to Davis on “Hot Henry” with the Little Ramblers or his two solos on “Alabamy Bound” with the Goofus Five, it’s worth reassessing the music’s power to move bodies:

Even when Davis hews closer to the melody, frequently on the first chorus of records such as “Tomorrow Morning,” he launches into ecstatic asides that don’t just decorate the theme but collide with it sideways:

His licks, though harmonically correct and rhythmically in step, sometimes sound completely unrelated to the melody. His breaks are just that, splintering off from the line, as for example on “She Loves Me” with the Varsity Eight:

On “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” with the Five Birmingham Babies, he’s wobbly and angular all at once, a funhouse distortion of the melody that comes teasingly close to throwing out the theme altogether:

Even on the relaxed, relatively straight-laced “Deep Sea Blues” with the same group, there remains a sense of disconnected phrasing:

Many soloists are praised for their “seamless” legato, and Sudhalter points to Trumbauer’s occasional influence on Davis. Yet for the most part Davis indulges in seams, sudden twists and turns that may seem superfluous, or can be heard as exercises in disconnection, a reveling in choppiness and unpredictability. Davis ups the ante on a slightly faster version of “Deep Sea Blues” with the Goofus Five, chopping the melody to pieces with some angular ornamentation (and a few wrong notes):

Davis builds a peculiar, very powerful tension between the written melody and his interpretation of it. This is not the warm, well-wrought approach of Louis Armstrong, who could take his own paring down of a song and make it fit the tune like a glove, or the flurrying personalizations of Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker, with those long, twisting runs between phrases that sound like part of the sheet music. It’s also not the wide-open, relentlessly individualistic flights on blank canvas of many free or avant-garde players. There’s an eschewal of story at work in Davis’s playing, that of both the composer and the performer.

If Davis sounds scattered, it was probably by design. Variety was paramount for pre-Armstrong jazz musicians. Brian Harker cites trumpeter Louis Panico’s advice that “never more than two measures of similarity be used” and to incorporate a “new idea about every other measure.” Panico, writing in 1923, describes an approach still prevalent during the mid to late twenties, even as a young trumpeter from New Orleans (perhaps among others) offered an alternative. As opposed to this “patchwork” aesthetic, Harker explains the revolution that was/is Louis Armstrong:

[Armstrong] rejected the prevailing standard of novelty that encouraged a rambling, disjointed rhetoric in order to provide a more or less constant sense of the unexpected. In its place he substituted a structural conception that later musicians would identify with telling a story.

VaristyEightCareOf78recordsDOTwordpressHarker’s elegant summary, also cited by Bjerstedt, places two concepts of a jazz solo next to one another. It’s easy to hear terms such as “rambling” and “disjointed” as pejoratives but worth remembering that we’re hearing those terms long after the other concept won out. It’s no small wonder that the storytelling model of a jazz solo seems like a stretch when applied to Bobby Davis’s music. Instead of coherence, Davis emphasizes variety. Instead of narrative, he works in collage. In place of allusion, he provides non sequitur. Rather than telling a story or drawing a portrait, at most Davis provides a few Rorschach blurs.

Either the moldy fig or the contrarian in me (perhaps one and the same) couldn’t stop thinking about Davis’s music while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis. That music comes from before the storytelling model as well as later rejections of it. It’s completely removed from what most jazz musicians and listeners have taken for granted over several decades. There are now several options for Davis’s music, or that of Panico, Don Murray, Buster Bailey, Bill Moore, Woody Walder and others: reduce it to a nostalgic experience, write it off as a misstep on the way to some supposed jazz teleology or explore it as some vestigial limb of jazz.  Personally, I just hear another approach to playing a jazz solo.

I also hear a refreshing lack of pretense in Davis’s playing. I don’t hear a storyteller, a spontaneous composer, a sensitive artist or a pensive experimenter.  There is no story or deep sentiment at work, just pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre and other sounds, left to their own devices, freed from encumbrances such as  dramatic arch and emotional expression, exploding in real time over a danceable beat, never reminding me of anything else, not needing to reference anything but themselves and never taking themselves too seriously. It’s just another way of doing things, even if it doesn’t make a good story.

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Jazz Bass Clarinet Before Dolphy

1024px-Bass_ClarinetThis month’s JazzTimes includes a fascinating article on the bass clarinet. From Eric Dolphy through Don Byron up to Todd Marcus, the piece provides a digestible but expansive survey of jazz bass clarinetists, as well as great insights from the musicians about the instrument’s development into a full-fledged solo horn.

It’s no surprise that this article is devoted to players from sixties and later. As James Carter notes, “Until Dolphy came along, the bass clarinet was used in ensemble shading but rarely as a solo instrument.” Still, it was hard to get the sound of the instrument with a Paul Specht small group on “Hot Lips” out of my mind while reading:

Clarinet obbligatos around and on top of the lead are a hallmark of early jazz. In this case the instrument’s bass kin doesn’t just play under the melody. Its shaded, oaky sound is halfway between ensemble coloring and solo. The bass clarinet peeks out ever so slightly because of its timbre, its burbling energy and even its deliberately campy sense of humor, which would be probably be fatally out of place in most modern settings.

The other bass clarinet anomaly that came to mind from outside of jazz’s post-postwar traditions was Buster Bailey on his own tune, “Big Daddy and Baby Sitter”:

[Click here to listen]

This one still has plenty of humor but it comes from a much darker place, both texturally as well as emotionally. Backed by just piano and drums (thank goodness Bailey liked trio settings), the bass clarinet is darker but also oilier. Bailey’s theme statement is also miles away from his usually agitated style. He’s not doing much from a technical perspective, but in terms of sound and phrasing, he dials up a sense of good-natured sleaze.

“Big Daddy and Baby Sister” was recorded in June 1962, less than a year after Dolphy’s deservedly famous unaccompanied recording of “God Bless The Child” live at the Five Spot Café in New York City (unavailable on YouTube but here‘s another great performance). Maybe Bailey had his ears to the ground, or just decided to record something he had been experimenting with for a while. Either way, his playing leaves an imprint on the listener. Isn’t that what a soloist should do? “Rarely” was a very good choice of words by James Carter.

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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 Printed Score and Jazz

Somehwere, An Elephant is Giving Him A Bad Review

During his victory speech in South Carolina on Saturday night, Newt Gingrich joked about allowing President Barack Obama to use a teleprompter in debates. Gingrich has made this joke before, implying that the president needs far more preparation than he does to discuss the issues. I haven’t found any statistics comparing the ratio of Gingrichian teleprompter comments to criticisms against President George W. Bush for using similar devices, but let’s agree that neither side is safe from these attacks. It’s also safe to assume that they arise out of some powerful perceptions (if not necessarily actual facts) about the candidates.

Speaking off the top of one’s head in an articulate, exciting manner seems more impressive than doing so from a script. Spontaneity implies intelligence, poise and sincerity, while canned lines imply inauthenticity, an indicator that the orator doesn’t really know his or her stuff. After all, isn’t it easier just to read something? Aren’t we hearing something more honest when someone improvises?

Let’s face it, many jazz lovers make the same value judgment. Even if we listen to and love a variety of composed and extemporized genres, deep down we assume we’re hearing “more” of an artist when they’re improvising. The use of the phrase “opens up” is telling: it’s rarely used to describe an arrangement.  A good jazz chart knocks our socks off, but we hear the “true” musician when they’re creating in the moment. It’s also why highlighting a musician’s inspirations rather than their innovations can be damning: referencing another player too much in a solo implies planning, and worse, imitation. Creating something entirely original from an admired colleague’s utterances never seems as personal when compared to offering something totally unfamiliar.

The Tyranny of the Written Score

For even casual listeners, jazz is primarily associated with a soloist improvising multiple choruses.  Stylistically jazz has steadily shed all perceived impediments to completely “free” improvisation: first the written score, then the set melody, next chord changes, then key and in some cases even a steady groove.  This development not only leaves a lot of jazz in stylistic limbo, it passes over some great music that happens to be on paper.

In an interview I conducted with Vince Giordano last year, the bandleader, performer and historian glowingly described the music of the twenties and thirties as “a combination of orchestrated stuff and loose jazz.”  In his liner notes to An Anthology of Big Band Swing, Loren Schoenberg applauds arranger Bill Finegan’s ability to “…create scores with little or no improvisation that were still highly effective jazz.” It’s also worth noting that many jazz musicians have found inspiration from the written and rehearsed pages of the classical tradition (which itself is not always reducible to a score).

And if all the performers of Bach, Mozart and Brahms are doing is simply reading from a score, then anyone can be a great orator; all they need is a speechwriter and a research staff.   There are quite a few ways to express knowledge and sincerity (or for that matter to sound knowledgeable or sincere).  Whatever the relationship is between jazz and improvisation, music and spontaneity or expertise and preparation, the point is “what,” rather than “how.”

Duke Ellington understood his players so well that many parts he composed for them were mistaken for improvisations.  In performance, where the sheer sound of “Concerto for Cootie” comes from seems like a footnote:


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