I have a head cold today. Listening to music when you have a cold can be a bit odd—you feel fuzzy, and that fuzziness affects your body’s sonic chambers so acutely it’s hard to really enter the sound of an album. Everything seems so far away.
Perhaps that’s a good place to be, far away, when I approach writing about jazz for the first time in my life. How do you write about jazz? I don’t know much about the theory of music or the finessed points of horns or solos or structure, so how to approach a musical form that is different from the one with which I most identify, which is the blues (i.e., rock)?
How do I write about anything? First, listen. So. How do I listen to jazz?
Same way as anything else. I hear notes, melodies, parts, overlapping. I space out with solos and get swept up in syncopation. If I was still in my early twenties, I’d probably smoke a joint first. I used to do this after work with my friend Matt. One hot Portland summer we both often drew the morning shift at the record store, 8am to 4pm, and he’d give me a ride home in his mini van. We’d stop at his place, get baked, and lie on the floor of his small, cool, ground-level apartment, practically lying inside the open closet, and he’d play jazz records and we’d … listen.
Eric Dolphy came to prominence in the “avant garde” jazz scene of the 60s. He was from the West Coast and he played, mostly, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute. He played with a ton of amazing artists, including John Coltrane during his “Live at the Village Vanguard” shows. People thought they were crazy, harsh, un-musical.
Outward Bound was released by Prestige in 1960 (my copy of it is a fascimile reissue made by Fantasy Records in 1982, or “Original Jazz Classics”). It was Dolphy’s first record as a “band leader.” (I know this means he wrote the songs, but I always feel a bit frustrated by jazz’s insistence to name bands after the “leader” when jazz is to me so clearly an across-the-board collaboration.) Playing with him were Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Jackie Byard on piano, George Tucker playing bass, and Roy Haynes on the drums.
Outward Bound gets swingy a lot – Dolphy was definitely coming from an influence of big band musicians as well as be-bop, and this is one of his less “weird” albums. It was recorded at a historical moment, when jazz was veering toward the experimental and people like Ornette Coleman, who’d been pushing in that direction for years now, were starting to be recognized as the pioneers they were . Dolphy was indeed “outward bound,” but he wasn’t yet all the way out there. (I do have more of his later albums, so we’ll talk more about them later.)
This record is hailed on the cover as “the new direction of jazz” and I suppose it was. It sounds not that “far out” to me, although historically I know it was. Side 2 does get a little trippier – Dolphy plays flute, and it feels psychedelic here, or at least leaning that way. This is what listening gets me: I don’t know about the loops and whistles and what they’re called here, but I can hear this man breathing. I can hear Eric Dolphy take actual, individual breaths between phrases. It’s live. It’s in my ear. It’s next to me right now, it’s in here. But looking outward.
Dolphy’s alto sax is easy. It loops and sways above the combo, turned up loud in the mix, and from time to time to piano rises up to dance with it –these are parts I like best. And when the drummer kicks his heels and picks it up (like the beginning of track# 3, “Les”) we have the band in full form, all at the top of their game and dancing together and against and through one another.
When Matt, who’s a musician, and I listened in his apartment on those hot, quiet Portland summer afternoons, we talked about the music. Sure, there was a certain amount of stoney, “Dude, that is sweeeet!” moments, and a certain amount of silent, private, feeling-the-music moments, but we’d also point out different parts and rises and falls in the composition and draw comparisons between artists and instruments. We’d talk, and we’d lie back, and sometimes I would close my eyes and just be there— bending and falling with the flute here, the insane trumpet there, tripping out to the brilliant drum or the sick piano parts or all of it, everywhere.
I learned a lot that summer. Mostly I was honing what I already knew instinctively how to do—learning and reinforcing how to listen to something, even if I didn’t understand its structure in a profound of quantifiable way. How to single out different instruments in the mix and follow them until you jump off onto another line and follow that.
This is how I listen to jazz.
Let’s listen to “Les,” the third track on the first side. It gets a bit more crazy than the previous two tracks, leaning more directly “out”—by which I mean toward melodies and lines that are just enough “off’ the regular listener’s path of norm that they wake you up, question you, and then lie you back down to hear what they have to say.
On “Les,” Haynes kicks it in with the drums and we’re off. We encounter a smooth sax line and Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet bopping along right next to each other. Then things diverge. Soon, after another Dolphy solo, we hear a trumpet whose quality sounds like almost an echo, thin and rough at the same time. It’s as though Hubbard is being piped in from…where? Where is that, way out in the back there? Before I can figure it out, Byard steps back up. Piano. Things always get quiet around the piano, everyone backing off to let the granddaddy of all instruments remind us where we come from. Then the horns are back, and this time it’s Dolphy who sounds out-there. Like he’s playing from down the hall or something. You can hear the spatial dynamics of four physical people, playing together in a physical space. Haynes drumming it up back there the whole time. A few more rounds of people taking turns, the tight line between competition and collaboration holding together the combo as they blaze further into the song.
I feel fuzzy. This band is blowing out the speakers of something. Maybe it’s my head.
To close the song and the first half of the album, a bizarre solo battles ensue, with Dolphy and Hubbard both loud and upfront. Soon, a mix of everyone at once: this is jazz. The effect of the final spiral of sound is similar to that of walking into a large train station—say it’s Grand Central—when in it’s empty, and in the very next moment the steel cavern of the building filling with people. You’re standing on the balcony with your eyes closed, hearing and feeling the swell of the rush hour crowd, the masses navigating their messy improvised choreography without accident, the sound that bounces in the space between their heads and the rafters above you. You hear the metal structure of trumpet rafters directly underneath a saxophone roof, reinforcing one another in the middle of the sky. Below: whirlpools of hi hat, oceans of black keys. The “new direction” is everywhere.