Oliver Nelson and Eric Dolphy: Screamin’ the Blues, Straight Ahead

Ostensibly featuring Nelson, Dolphy nontheless is the most easily identifiable when the soloists enter, regardless of what instrument he plays.

“Screamin’ the Blues,” a typical 12-bar blues, nothing you haven’t heard before, but Nelson’s Tenor and Dolphy’s bass clarinet are worth hearing– their improvement on them in two separate ways, I mean. Same with “March on, March on”: Dolphy’s sax worms around psychedelic licks– they actually sound “psychedelic” while pushing along a jagged melody line.

“The Drive” great Dolphy alto solo; “The Meetin'” sounds like Jimmy Smith/ Stanley Turentine’s “Prayer Meetin,'” or Leo Parker’s “Let Me Tell You ‘Bout It,” gospel jazz, the opening call and response from preacher to congregation– glossolalia via reeds.

Nat Hentoff’s feelings about Dolphy:

Dolphy… sounds as if he has so many ideas and feelings to get out that both he and his horn have difficulty in containing them all. What makes Dolphy so absorbing an experimenter is that there is no detached cerebral blueprinting in his work. There is a wild rushing in his playing, all the emotions he feels at the moment tumbling after each other and yet forming an indomitably personal whole. [From liner notes. See below.]

“Three Seconds,” after a lilting, delicate theme in major seconds, Dolphy’s alto winds over the backing vamp, moving like kids do underwater, up down and backwards, without regard for the water entering their nose… they just flit about… musical tadpoles. Next, Richard Williams and the trumpet, then Nelson with a very Coltraney lick series, sounding like something on Kind of Blue. The trade-offs are fun and everyone keeps up with Dolphy.

“Alto-itis,” the final track, reveals most clearly the “uncanny valley” effect of Dolphy soloing over well-constructed if conventional material: he’s playing close enough to “normal”/ diatonic to highlight how Out the solos in fact are, especially when Nelson comes in immediately afterward. It’s a very clear and educational contrast, like brie and apples.

Overall, very sturdy background work with Dolphy’s solos making it interesting, both in themselves and how they might’ve inspired others to be a bit more loose. It also shows nicely the Dolphy between his fairly traditional bop in his beginnings and the esoteric material on later discs like Out to Lunch. This is the best example of why Dolphy was sometimes called “Too out to be in, too in to be out.”

Screamin’ the Blues ultimately lingers as a study of how well-composed-if-typical pieces can highlight unorthodox playing. Turning up the contrast on the hi-def, as it were. Nelson is the pristine clear glass without impurity, expertly blown; Dolphy is the inspired cracks and chips that give it character and make it unique.

Buy it here

Straight Ahead is the follow up:

It begins with the almost spectral “Images,” dual leads play the head, sway like grass knowing a hurricane’s coming… like a funky version of the music behind Tom & Jerry’s predations… Dolphy’s first solo (on bass clarinet) bobs up and down like a buoy on water in the middle of the Atlantic…. “Six and Four” trots out, Dolphy’s clarinet purrs up and down in the background of the head, “Mama Lou” struts its late-night boplicity [Goddamn it, spellcheck! I told you that’s a word!]… “Ralph’s New Blues” has a very cool solo from Dolphy like speech, as is his wont, but like a dog talking….

These two albums, moreso than any other featuring Dolphy, I think, demonstrate something:

Playing behind the beat (a bit) suggests introspection; playing way behind it lethargy; playing way behind it and then rushing and nailing the exact beat suggests mania, and playing ahead of the beat, aggression.

Playing on it‘s just boring; only use it as a way to “cut” your other playing.

Dolphy seems to do all these, except he lets (intentionally or not) Nelson act as the “exactly on time” standard.

“Straight Ahead,” especially the cover graphics above, almost seems like a documentary on two musician’s views on what “straight ahead” means in playing. A “crossfire,” “point/counterpoint” kind of record.

Buy it

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