Early on in my obsession with Tim Berne, I learned he was heavily inspired by Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. album. And I’ve longed to hear it since, to get a sense of how Berne’s career germinated. It’s like being a scientist tracing matter back to the Big Bang (except my job was a lot easier).
Problem was, Dogon A.D. is long out of print and not likely to resurface. In an interview, Berne said he’d tried once to get the rights to reissue it but was stymied. (He did manage to reissue Blue Boye, a solo Hemphill album. Berne witnessed the recording process, as he notes in this great interview on Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math.)
How quickly things change. “Dogon A.D.,” the title track, was briefly available on the Destination: OUT site (a great study aid for free jazz listeners), so I got to hear the original’s funky pulsing. And now, cover versions have emerged from Vijay Iyer and Marty Ehrlich.
How do they compare?
First, here’s the premise. “Dogon A.D.” is built on a grinding, grumpy funk riff that’s in a subtle 11 time — you don’t sense the real rhythm until you pay tight attention to the drums and realize you’re lost. That catchy riff becomes a platform for free improvising from the horns.
Ehrlich sticks close to the original formula, down to Hemphill’s lineup of sax, trumpet, cello, and drums. In fact, his whole album, Things Have Got To Change, is a Hemphill tribute, sporting three Hemphill compositions and a group of Ehrlich originals that show Hemphill’s stamp of catchy, complex funk.
Ehrlich resurrects “Dogon A.D.” with repect and gusto. He chooses a relatively relaxed arc for his own solo; rather than sandblasting (which isn’t his style anyway), he plays around with unexpected tonalities, a sideways push into new ground. Then James Zollar digs in with the trumpet, showing some polished free-jazz flash.
Iyer’s version, which had been previewable at NPR in the weeks before the Historicity album came out, has a necessarily different sound, as Iyer’s trio uses just bass and drums behind his piano. Iyer’s rolling piano solo includes his usual low-register rumblings and hard bass pumping, and lots of adventuruous, breezy work with the right hand. The bass and drums cut free from the basic riff for a good all-soloing feel, and the bass later takes over for a short, quiet, bowed solo.
But the real treat to Iyer’s “Dogon A.D.” is in the way he deals with the composed and pre-arranged parts. What was once an airy two-horn theme becomes a tense piano punchcard. And the re-emergence of the dual horns towards the end is replaced by a quiet break, where the beat continues suspensefully, followed by some hard-chorded jazzy drama and a nicely fluttering ending. Iyer’s remolded the guts of the song like clay, a prime example of the good that can come of taking new approaches to tried-and-true material.
(Note, too, that Historicity has a theme: cover songs chosen for their “disruptive quality,” as Iyer says in the liner notes. Like Ehrlich and Berne, Iyer apparently considers this a pivotal piece worth preserving and expanding upon.)
And the original? It’s still magical. Abdul Wadud’s cello holds down that 11-based riff, later twisting it into a heavy-sawing phrase that ends on a two-note chord that he lets ring, like a struck match. It’s a nice touch. Hemphill doesn’t blaze lightspeed with his solo but produces a lot of sharp corners and sudden turns, all the while pouring out a fiery, raspy sax sound, a gritty air that Ehrlich and Iyer don’t try to replicate — probably because that’s Julius, and not them. On trumpet, Baikida Carroll lets the sparks fly but also leaves a lot of white space, so that the cello part keeps on drilling into your consciousness.
A word on drumming, too, since Philip Wilson gets a nice mention in that Berne interview. Ehrlich’s take, and Iyer’s, to a smaller extent, both open with a crisp drumbeat that spells out the 11/8 pulse. Wilson, on the original, just splashes out the stressed notes for a 4-4-3 rhythm. It’s a nice sound and leaves some mystery out there as the cello riff starts asserting itself. Then again, if the other versions started that way, they’d be just copycatting. I think the difference is warranted.
The Berne interview has inspired me to try catching up on more of Hemphill’s material. That’ll be the subject of another posting, probably not for a few weeks.