Was he the greatest jazz pioneer of all time?


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Seed Artists’ Chris Napierala sat down with jazz flutist and composer James Newton to discuss the work and impact of jazz legend Eric Dolphy. Below are Newtons’ words:

“He [was] an innovator through and through, in part because of the broad, diverse amount of musical language he had to bring into his aesthetic, and figure out ways for them to coexist together. He did that in a way that no one else did during that time. The impact of birdsong, the impact of down-home, raw, country-like blues being played on the alto saxophone.”

Composer and flutist James Newton

Newton went on the discuss Dolphy’s unique ensembles, his Blue Note album Out To Lunch, and the multicultural influences found in his work:

 “And then the complexity and the specificity of orchestration to create these new kind of ensembles, the role of the vibraphone in a modern jazz context. If you look at his ensembles, Out To Lunch, just the sound of the band! And the way that he pushed the language of bebop forward. Indian, Hindustani influences in his music, we can go on. And also, really important, Central African music. Eric Dolphy talked about…the intervallic skips that exist in his music that is connected to the chest and the head voices going back and forth so exquisitely. And rhythmically fascinating.”

Newton also spoke about the way Dolphy’s style varied between different instruments:

“He was an individualist on all of this instruments. They didn’t sound like one another playing the same musical language. They all had their characteristics, they were like different actors on a stage with a character development. And they also had the ability to bring out other sides of his personality, [like] a visual artist that does mixed media and then they move to, video and then, let’s say, they’re working with acrylics and sculpture. Each of those movements brings out a different side of who they are. Each of the instruments brought something out on Dolphy…and as a composer, that was a whole other side of it. So to have all those balls in the air, and to push instruments, the flute and the bass clarinet to levels they have never been performed at before…The kind of virtuosity that he had!”

Dolphy’s positivity that shined through his music was another key point for Newton:

“Despite all the challenges at different points he had to go through, there was so much joy and celebration. And sometimes we could feel his heaviness in the struggle, but so many times there’s an unbound joy. [To me, it was a] partial antidote to the pandemic. Sometimes I really needed to hear that joy to help get through, when we were in that deep hole. There’s other deep holes now, and his art is still there to remind us of the fact that we can do better as human beings by this example, and we can rise up to higher highs.”

Join us at The New School’s John L. Tishman auditorium on June 1st and 2nd for Eric Dolphy: Freedom of Sound, a celebration of Dolphy’s life and work, featuring almost 40 artists. (Tickets here.)

This story originally appeared on Seed Artists and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.