Sunday, February 6, 2011

February 6: Eric Dolphy, "Hat And Beard"

Artist: Eric Dolphy
Song: "Hat And Beard"
Album: Out To Lunch
Year: 1964

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Though it may seem a cliché thought, the reality is that the finest artists in history truly do many the most of the time they have to perform.  While many artists waste decades on making sub-par music, there are an elite handful of musicians who have made some of the largest impact in music history over just a few short years.  The list of jazz players who had their time come far too early is almost disturbingly long, and there are few musicians on such a list that have had as massive and long-lasting a mark on the world of jazz than the late, great Eric Dolphy.  In just over four years, Dolphy completely rewrote what was possible through the jazz style, and he remains one of the most talented and diverse musicians in history, playing a number of different instruments over his brief career.  When one looks at the amount of music that Dolphy recorded in this short time, it is almost unfathomable that a single human could have that much creative genius inside, and it is impossible to list all of the musicians who his innovations impacted.  Though many place his music into the "avant guarde" style of jazz, when one looks at the structure of his recordings, he never abandons chordal improvisation as many other avant artists did, and it is this factor that sets his playing far apart from his peers.  While there is not a "bad" moment anywhere to be found in his recorded catalog, few songs are more moving and definitive of Eric Dolphy than his classic 1964 composition, "Hat And Beard."

Serving as the first track on his final studio session, which was also his first for Blue Note Records, the brilliant Out To Lunch record.   From the moment the song begins, the greatness that Dolphy possesses is clear, but it is also quickly obvious that he has managed to surround himself with musicians that are certainly up to par musically.  In fact, the grouping for this album stands as one of the most impressive musical lineups to ever formally record together.  Standing out from the pack is the equally legendary Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone, and his performance here is without question one of his finest moments.  The way in which he almost duets with Dolphy throughout the song is absolute jazz perfection, and his fills and solos are equally fantastic.  Working slightly behind Hutcherson is bassist Richard Davis, and it is his playing that gives "Hat And Beard" a unique bounce, as well as an ebb and flow that is rarely heard elsewhere in jazz.  Tony Williams is on drums for the track, and in both the shifts he creates, as well as the creative way in which he works the cymbals into the arrangement stands today as one of the finest pieces of drumming ever recorded.  The backing band is rounded out by trumpet icon Freddie Hubbard, and the bright, yet reflective tone that he produces sits perfectly alongside Dolphy's sound.  Though there is no question that by their names alone, this entire album would be hard pressed to not reach iconic status, each of these jazz giants understands their own place, and the combined effort is far greater than the sum of the parts in question.

While his backing band cannot go without notice, it is "Hat And Beard" that shows Eric Dolphy at his finest, and there are few performances from any genre that can even remotely measure up to the playing found here.  Expressive and creative in a way unlike any other jazz master, Dolphy shows here how he clearly understands musical arrangements in a completely different level.  Bringing an almost vocal-like quality to his solos, even for those not well versed in jazz, one cannot help but be awed by the sheer beauty of his playing.  The way in which Dolphy leads the band with his sharp, often jarring movements can be seen as the culmination of all of his previous musical exploration.  Having gone as "far out" as one can imagine on previous work, it is here where one can experience his adventurous style fused together with a clear form, thus setting him apart from being simply "avant" or "free" in terms of jazz style.  Within Dolphy's performance on "Hat And Beard," one can easily hear the influence of the hard-bop sound as well as the more experimental side of jazz, and rarely has it come together so perfectly, as the pulls the band along with him, taking some of the most daring musical paths ever captured on tape.  The way in which he fearlessly blazes deep into the most delicate nuances of the song gives a perfect picture as to why Dolphy is held in such high regard, and "Hat And Beard" remains one of the most compelling compositions in music history.

Truth be told, "Hat And Beard" is actually a work of tribute, as Dolphy composed it in honor of the great Thelonious Monk.  Strangely enough, for a song dedicated to that jazz giant, "Hat And Beard" is a piano-less composition, but it is nonetheless a moving salute.  As the decades have passed, the song has remained a high-water mark for jazz, and though a handful of cover versions have been made, none come even remotely close to the overall power of the original.  Tragically, Dolphy himself passed away nearly four months to the day of the release of Out To Lunch, so he was never able to fully recieve the accolades for the brilliance within what became his final work.  Yet looking at his entire catalog, one cannot help but be amazed by the sheer volume of seminal jazz pieces that he recorded in such a short period of time.  It is this fact that puts the decades-long progress of other musicians into perspective, and few musicians carry as much of a "what could have been" sentiment as one can attribute to Eric Dolphy.  Furthermore, if one takes a wide look at the progression of jazz, one can mark the passing of Dolphy as the end of the largest period of exploratory jazz, and it is somehow fitting that it would be this record which would stand as one of the finest pieces of such work.  Surrounded by some of the most legendary musicians in all of jazz history, Eric Dolphy can be heard at his artistic apex on his absolutely phenomenal 1964 recording, "Hat And Beard."

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