The jazz story of the year isn’t the discovery of some tapes by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s not some long-lost recordings of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall. No, the jazz story of the year—and I’m serving this up to you on a platter, Downbeat—is James Newton’s recent acquisition of unheard-of handwritten sheet music by Eric Dolphy, and his incredible, incredible group with Bennie Maupin that debuted tonight at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.
There are certain works of art which we assume are too unique to ever be re-created. A stage play of Nights of Cabiria, say, or maybe a life-size sculpture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa—no one would attempt these things, because the originals are so distinctly their own. Eric Dolphy’s music is in this same echelon. By honing through incessant practice his immediately identifiable tone and stylistic approach, Dolphy ensured that when he died at age 36, no one would dare follow in his wake. People talk about jazz players having their own style. Eric Dolphy had his own language.
The flutist James Newton came into possession of Dolphy’s handwritten manuscripts through his teacher Hale Smith, a close friend of Dolphy’s with whom the great saxophonist/bass clarinetist/flutist deposited his trove of original sheet music days before he left for Europe with Charles Mingus in 1964, never to return. Now in fading health, Smith recently phoned Newton to entrust him with the collection. His instructions to Newton were simple: “You gotta take care of this.”
Tonight at the Raven Theater, James Newton and his quintet faced a huge challenge: how to present this music as Dolphy might have played it, when Dolphy himself would have presented it differently each time? Rising to the challenge of immersing themselves in another language, Newton’s group didn’t just re-create the music of Eric Dolphy. In twists and turns, they brought to life the fiery spirit, the adventurousness, the emotional resonance and the boundless optimism so prevalent in Dolphy’s muse, and they did so with both skillful prescience and loving warmth. One could close their eyes and easily imagine that Dolphy himself was in the house.
The concert opened with an Eric Dolphy composition, unrecorded and unheard in public before tonight, titled “Boycott.” In a low moan on his bass clarinet, Bennie Maupin introduced a slow solo figure. Soon, he conversed in tight harmony with bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz. Drummer Billy Hart crawled around the notes in a noteless manifestation of Dolphy’s eeriness, and Maupin, at the end of his solo, began beating out quiet rhythms by attacking the keys on his instrument. With otherworldly overtones and harmonic growls, Newton burst into the song on flute, the instrumental equivalent of a human cry, and eventually brought everyone back around to the slow, haunting theme.
If the afterlife exists, then Dolphy was watching over this premiere, caressing his beard and smiling widely.
The quintet played largely from Dolphy’s seminal Blue Note recording Out to Lunch, with each and every player perfectly filling their predecessor’s shoes. Hart absolutely nailed Tony Williams’ free horse-clop rhythms of the album’s title track, and the “new” head to “Straight Up and Down,” with the famous theme expanded and chopped, was an inspired addition to Dolphy’s exciting voicing for two instruments. During “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” Newton bent a note on his flute to the heavens while vibist Jay Hoggard ended a sensitive solo with a serendipitous cymbal crash from Hart. Magic was in the air.
The apex of the evening, however, was Out to Lunch‘s “Gazzelloni” (which, Newton told me afterwards, incredibly exists arranged for strings in the piles of Dolphy’s sheet music). Fully inhabiting the music, Hoggard gave a purely lyrical and possessed solo on the vibes, full of unstoppable ideas. Not to be outdone, Maupin followed with a ferocious unleashing of long, circular lines and inspired conception on soprano sax. The applause at the end was impulsive, grateful, and long.
After Maupin’s original composition “Equal Justice” on the piano and the blues “245” from Outward Bound, the group left the stage and the house lights came up. Lights be damned, the audience’s applause refused to die, and the quintet came out for one final number: “The Madrig Speaks, the Panther Walks,” appropriately chosen from Last Date, and appropriately earning a standing ovation.
The importance of this group’s project cannot be underestimated—in the lobby afterwards, people were overheard asking to touch Dolphy’s original charts—and their authority in Dolphy’s realm will soon be known to the world through an album on ECM, with Herbie Hancock signed on as a participant. Newton says there’s “a whole lotta stuff” in the collection of Dolphy’s sheet music he has yet to adapt, and tonight’s concert was just the first of many thrilling performances to come.
Sound the clarion call. The Scripture According to Dolphy awaits. “This is the first time we’ve played anywhere in the Universe,” said Newton, “and we thank you.”
I’ve had quite a few people ask me for recommendations on the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and what I’ve found is that most people in the world are interested in jazz but simply uninformed. There’s no better place to brush up on your jazz than this year’s festival, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a grand slam as far as festival booking goes. Every show’s a winner, but here’s a quick run-down of the shows that I personally am planning on attending; keep in mind that everyone has their own idea of what’s cool and what blows.
First of all, any newcomer to jazz is virtually required to see Mark Cantor’s Jazz Night at the Movies (June 1 at 7:30pm, Raven Theater). The impact of Cantor’s amazing collection of 16mm jazz reels (he’s got over 5,000 at this point) is incredible, providing a cinematic history of live jazz from almost every era. Cantor’s personal introductions provide connect-the-dots context, and every single clip is moving in its own way; either hilarious, like Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang trading call-and-response eights, or downright poignant, like Billie Holiday singing “My Man” from a 1950s television special. Plus it’s only $10!
I’m stoked on finally seeing Charles Lloyd (May 31 at 7:30pm, Jackson Theater), who’s been making interesting records on ECM lately with a great group. He’s got this really great pianist, Jason Moran, and an excellent, rock-solid drummer in the form of Eric Harland. He’s getting older, but he’s an innovator from within, and those people never run out of ideas, regardless of age. Charles Lloyd was lucky enough to be booked onto Fillmore shows in the late ’60s by Bill Graham, and his searing solos fit in nicely with the psychedelic scene in San Francisco; if you’re looking for envelope-pushing jazz, check this one out.
The show I can fully recommend to everyone—and especially those with kids—is the suave-lookin’ guy pictured above, clarinetist Don Byron (June 2 at 1pm and 7pm, Raven Theater), whose Ivey Divey was my #1 jazz album of 2004. Combining klezmer, jazz, and classical styles, in a word, Byron’s music is fun. The show he’ll be presenting is great: old Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons get projected on the Raven Theater’s screen while his group plays music from his 1996 album, Bug Music. Both Raymond Scott—whose music will be represented in great supply—and Byron have that element of surprise that kids love, but he’s innovative enough (and has a great band, with Billy Hart on drums) to appeal to anyone. It’s $25, but bring a kid and it’s only $15 for the both of you!
One of my all-time favorite jazz musicians is Eric Dolphy, who played the saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute like no one else who walked the planet. He died in 1964, but his music was so great that it takes two people to resurrect it properly: saxophonist and clarinetist Bennie Maupin and flutist James Newton (June 6 at 8pm, Raven Theater). Maupin played on Miles Davis‘ Bitches Brew, and most people only know Newton from his highly publicized Supreme Court case with the Beastie Boys over sampling rights (“Pass the Mic”—the Beasties won). Newton is a hell of a flute player, on par with Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and he and Maupin have unearthed some sheet music that Dolphy left behind. It’ll be out there, but in the best sense—Dolphy never wanked for wanking’s sake—making this the show I’m probably most excited about.
How can you go wrong with the lineup for ‘A Night in the Country‘ (June 7 at 7:30pm, Raven Theater)? Charlie Haden is one of jazz’s most intuitive bassists, having helmed the Ornette Coleman quartet, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and the Quartet West (he’s also a great interview). Kenny Barron is the one pianist that no one I know hates, and saxophone superstar Joshua Redman is going to thrive in this setting. Also on the bill is Julian Lage, who I cannot say enough good things about (and that’s not just because I sold him his copy of Everybody Digs Bill Evans when he was 12). Simply put, Lage is a miracle, a supremely talented guitar player with gallons of taste. He’ll be playing with monster bassist Ray Drummond to boot!
Jazz has always been nighttime music to me, but if you can hang with the sunny outdoors at a winery, then by all means, go see Bobby Hutcherson (June 8 at 3pm, Rodney Strong Vineyards). Always terrific, Hutcherson is also a complete crowd-pleaser, hovering over his vibes and making wild body movements as he plays. He’s played on some seminal albums, including Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, and he was the saving grace of Freddie Hubbard’s disastrous performance last month at Yoshi’s. Also on the bill is Cedar Walton, who played on the John Coltrane album Giant Steps, and Craig Handy, an outstanding tenor player from Berkeley who always blows me away.
The complete Healdsburg Jazz Festival lineup is here. Say whassup if you see me around.