‘Music is a reflection of everything. And it’s universal. Like you can hear somebody from across the world, another country. You don’t even know them, but they’re in your own back yard, you know?’
Eric Dolphy’s public career in jazz was regrettably short. Having gained his early musical experience in the vicinity of Los Angeles, his birth-place, he first came to public notice when he joined the Chico Hamilton quintet in the late 1950’s. (He plays flute in Hamilton’s sequence in the film Jazz on A Summer’s Day.) With this group he arrived in New York where he allied himself enthusiastically with the jazz avant-garde. He had met Ornette Coleman earlier and admitted that Coleman had taught him ‘a direction’ while denying any more direct influence. Parenthetically one should note that the greater part of Dolphy’s playing seems to be related to a chordal base and that he rarely, if ever, makes use of Coleman’s ‘pantonal’ method. Like Cecil Taylor, however, Dolphy seemed intent upon extending jazz tonality to its farthest possible limits.
Dolphy was a freelance musician except during a period in 1961 when he led his own group which included the late Booker Little on trumpet. While freelancing, he had long and productive associations with Charles Mingus, Max Roach and John Coltrane, but often found himself playing in more conventional groups. Thus, his playing, perhaps more than any other musician’s, demonstrates the continuity between recent development and earlier formulations. Unlike other contemporary musicians of major importance, he did not develop a markedly personal approach to the problems of group organization; his mobility, however, made him very important as a disseminator of new ideas and in time his influence may well show itself to be more immanent than Ornette Coleman’s.
Had he chosen to, Dolphy could probably have developed into an important arranger and composer. His scoring on Africa/Brass (hmv clp 1548) succeeds in setting off Coltrane most advantageously and his compositions, often showing Charles Mingus’ influence, were exciting and melodically original. (The most interesting compositions in the
Dolphy was most often heard on either alto saxophone, flute, or bass clarinet, though he was reputed to be proficient on many other reed instruments. Unlike many other multi-instrumentalists, he was equally expressive on each of his horns. On alto, he played with a full, well-defined tone, often piercing and strident, but always effectively and intentionally so. In parallel with Sonny Rollins though perhaps not under his direct influence, he did much towards extending the effective range of the saxophone, often using harmonics in his solos. On flute, he was unable to produce the vocal effects he found on his other horns, but his breath control and consequent ability to vary the texture of his notes, together with his melodic originality, made him outstanding among jazz flautists. His work on bass clarinet is especially good. Previously, this had been largely an arranger’s instrument, which a studio musician might pick up when additional tone colour was needed. Dolphy, on the other hand, improvised on it boldly and the rich visceral sound he produced was one of the most arresting and beautiful in jazz. His use of this instrument pointed the way to the use of others which jazz musicians have neglected. Sonny Simmons already shows Dolphy’s influence in his use of the English horn (Illuminations: Impulse A–49).
In his improvisations, Dolphy synthesized the best of orthodox jazz practice with techniques taken from other musical cultures to produce a unique personal style. Although he never acknowledged this debt publicly, he seems to have been greatly influenced by Sonny Rollins in his approach to soloing. From this musician he seems to have taken firstly his practice of inserting unusually wide intervals and sudden transitions from one register to another into his melodic line, and secondly his way of fragmenting the beat so that notes often fall very close to the beat but not directly on it. In his extension of these techniques, he sometimes approached the melodic and rhythmic organization of the European composers’ klangfarbenmelodie as Donald Heckman has already noted, and, occasionally, as on All The Things You Could Be By Now (Candid 8005) he organized long passages of his playing in this way. Had he lived longer, he would probably have extended his use of this technique even further.
More than any other jazz musician, Dolphy was interested in the possibilities of incorporating non-musical sound into his playing. Readers who have heard Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz will recall his ribald explosions on bass clarinet which often serve the purpose of giving greater rhythmic momentum to the ensemble. In one interview (Down Beat 12–4–62) he discussed the way in which listening to bird-song had influenced his flute playing, saying that, in making use of the ‘noises’ he heard, he tried to approach the microtonal structure of Indian music. He was also preoccupied with the interval patterns, sound qualities and rhythmic organization of human speech and many of his solos derive much of their emotional impact from the vocal effects he employs.